by Anupam Pandey
Before joining CSJ, I was working with government schools in Rajasthan and was responsible for capacity building of teachers and other staff. During this period, I often came across several children who were in conflict with the law for one reason or another. In such cases, members of children’s own families would often see their child as a “criminal,” as is the cultural perception. Looking at all this, I was curious to learn what provisions existed for such children and began exploring the field of child rights, eventually joining Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ).
At CSJ, I work with both, children in need of care and protection (CNCP) and children in conflict with the law (CiCL).** Before beginning working with them, I read through the POSCO Act, the law on child sexual abuse and the JJ Act, the law for CiCL and CNCP. Right at the start of my engagement with CSJ, I also underwent several capacity building trainings. Prepared as best as I could be, I began work on the field. As always happens, the ground reality is far varied from theory, and through this blog, I hope to share my some of my observations, experiences and reflections.
So far, I have gotten the opportunity to visit Observation Homes across four districts of Rajasthan, meeting with several children there. During these visits, I got to speak with many staff members, across these institutions, who also gave me an insight into their work.
My First Visit: Embodying My Learnings
Coming from the same socialisation where children in conflict with the law are written off as criminals, as I was entering one of the Observation Homes for the first time, I noticed feelings of fear in my body. This was, after all, a pivotal moment in my journey of exploring children’s rights. Noticing this fear, I recalled something that I had learnt during a training, “keep away all your prejudice before meeting with children.” Remembering that simple yet powerful lesson, I took a deep breath and leaving my fears outside, entered the building. As soon as I went inside, I was greeted by the children, almost like I would be if I were entering a new classroom at the school I used to work at. I started our interaction by introducing myself and found the children responding to me (a new person in their environment) with similar mixed emotions of hesitation, curiosity and warmth, just like the children at the school. This common thread helped break the hesitation and doubt in my own mind as I realised that children are the same everywhere.
My Second Visit: Holding Space for Unique Experiences
My second visit to this Observation Home was with a colleague to conduct restorative circle process, a safe space where children sit in a circle and are offered a space to talk sequentially about their experiences and challenges. The circle process was a great space of exchange where I got to hear the thoughts, perspectives and stories of each child. During this process, one of the prompts we used with the children was “when were you happy in the past week?”. This prompt gave me a fresh insight into the children’s lives as a few responded to the prompt saying that meeting with parents / family made them happy, while one of them opened up and shared that they did not have anyone in their family.
Another opportunity that the circle process created was space for each child’s unique experiences and realities, in a way that attends to their specific needs. For example, one of the children, Aman* could not read or write since he had never gotten the opportunity to go to school. At the time, he was experiencing feelings of sadness and loneliness due to not being visited by anyone. He needed a way to express his emotions and process what he was feeling, and drawing became the tool to help him do just that. After the circle process, Aman* looked visibly happier and shared with us his joy at being able to draw after a very long time. Seeing his happiness made me very happy too.
My Third Visit: Building Bridges
Next, I got the opportunity to visit another district’s Observation Home where we met the staff and children. At this Home, I met Mohan*. Mohan* was here because he got separated from his family that was visiting Rajasthan from another state. As it is, the child had experienced so much distress. On top of that, due to not being from the state, people around Mohan* struggled to understand his language which further made him feel alone and like an outsider. Coincidentally, however, I could understand him well, which immediately proved to be helpful to him, as he felt better speaking with someone who could understand him.
Subsequently, we did a restorative circle process with the children. During this process, I found that many children had questions about the status of their cases and lack of information/knowledge was a source of distress among them. Most of the children however, simply wanted a space to freely share their feelings and stories, and be heard, without unsolicited advice or judgments, which was hardly available to them, exacerbating the impact of institutionalisation.
I also noticed how social perception around children who come in conflict with law takes effect. Observation Homes are created under the JJ Act, 2015 and function as a place for rehabilitation. However, due to society’s perspectives, general citizens as well as the children themselves tend to think of themselves as being in “children’s jail” and hence, having no chance of having a good future at all.
Reflecting on My Evolving Perception
These interactions with children left me reflecting on the contrast between general perception and what I was experiencing firsthand. Starting off, I thought of and approached the children with the assumption that since they were in an Observation Home, “they must have done something wrong.” But now the questions in my mind have changed to “what must have led them to these circumstances,” “what mistakes must have been made with these children,” “what would have been the circumstances that led them to take the decision that brought them here,” and “who all were responsible for them.”
I share these observations as a way to record not just my own learnings and evolution, but also why I feel that the work we are doing is immensely important to allow children in conflict with the law to see that they are not what they have allegedly done, that they are not “criminals stuck in a life without a possibility for a good future.”
My experiences so far have been eye-opening and deeply enriching. As a human being working this closely with children and learning about their life stories often makes me want to find a way to quickly change things to help them. Sometimes it is hard to realise that I may not be able to change things as much or as fast as I would like to. However, these reflections and particular instances are my way of practicing the act of recognising the value of each step, each action, towards that end.
My journey so far has taught me that working for children’s rights is simply about ensuring, protecting and enabling the rights of children as given by the Indian Constitution, and I close this brief reflection with the hope for building a society that is truly child-friendly – where each child gets the opportunity to develop equitably, as is their right.
**Children in conflict with the law (CiCL) and children need of care and protection (CNCP) are defined under Section 2(13) and 2(14) respectively, of the JJ Act, 2015. CiCL refers to a child who is alleged or found to have committed an offence and who has not completed 18 years of age on the date of commission of such offence. CNCP refers to children who have been sexually harmed, abused, tortured, neglected or have no home or guardians or have any other vulnerability. For detailed definition, click here.
*In order to protect their identities and privacy, all names mentioned here are pseudonyms.