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The last resort

With a soaring suicide rate among children below 15 years in Kerala, experts say Child Rights is a concept unheard of in the State. The fear of academic failure is so deep-rooted in young minds that suicide seems a natural option. SHWETHA E. GEORGE writes.


It is the right of every child to be nurtured and cared for by its parents.

HE CANNOT be more than 12 years old. Standing in the corridor of the Government Juvenile Justice Home, he gives you a blank stare as you walk into the Superintendent's office. What is his story? Was he caught stealing, taking drugs or was he a victim of homosexual abuse? Will he be "transformed" by the time his term ends? Or will nothing change at all? Until one day he decides to take his own life like scores of children in his State do?

The State Crime Records Bureau reports that 106 children below the age of 15 committed suicide in Kerala in the year 2000. The previous year, the figure was 132. Fact is, such reports are common in Kerala, especially during the time the tenth board exam-results are released. The fear of academic failure is so deep rooted in the Malayali child's psyche that the tendency to commit suicide comes almost naturally to him. About 40 per cent of the children in juvenile homes from slum areas and about six per cent are orphans who previously lived in foster homes. But the rest hail from so-called model families. Their reason for turning deviant — pressure at home. In fact, during a survey taken of 10,000 students belonging to both government and private schools in Kochi, the NGO Maithri asked only one question to the children aged between 12 and 16 — has anybody either at school/home/public place abused you mentally/physically/sexually? They replied that 70 per cent of their mental agony occurred at home. "For the average Malayali, his child is an investment," says Dr. S.B. Singh, member of the Juvenile Welfare Board, who also runs an NGO which strives for torture-prevention. "The clamour for marks and a rank at the end of the term is so intense and common that it's the norm to harass a child as long as it's for better marks." The social workers at the Maithri Suicide-Prevention Centre say their phone lines ring incessantly during those few weeks prior to the release of results. "One boy called us to ask if we could inform his parents that he didn't secure a rank," says Dr. Jos Chathukulam, director of CRM counselling centre. In fact, most children are not worried for themselves more than they are for what their families and relatives would say. The State seems oblivious to these suicides although they occur every year.

In fact, the release of tenth board exam results is a yearly "spectacle" in Kerala. The rank holders have their faces splashed across front pages, tuition centres copy their methods of study ad the school-going child is spared no time for anything else other than study. "A child can cope better if he's given the proper nurturing and care at home." What one sees usually, says Malini Menon, executive trustee with the NGO Yuva Parivarthan, is a kind of parental obsession to make their kids super-achievers. "The Gulf NRIs who can obviously spend more want their kids to learn everything — so it's dance classes on Tuesday, classical music on Wednesdays and tuitions every other day. When grandparents complain the load is too much to handle, then the child is, may be, excused from one activity."

What it all amounts to, says Dr. Singh, is that the mental health of the average child is very poor. "He is over-anxious, insecure, totally lacking in social skills and prone to frustration." Any inherent skill he displays is suppressed. Faced with a problem, he does not consult his parents. He becomes lonely and detached. It's no surprise then that the tendency to commit suicide takes root slowly. Says Malini, "That tendency can start even at the age of five." Question is, where does Child Rights fit in with all this? Since the U.N. Convention for Child's Rights was ratified is 1992 some steps were taken in this direction for the first time. In Kerala, however, the process was slower, until the amended Juvenile Justice Act came into force in the year 2000. Under the aegis of the State Social Welfare Department and with UNICEF collaboration, many members of SWD and the Juvenile Welfare Board began conducting seminars on awareness of child's rights in each district. With their themes borrowed from UNICEF and pasted onto projection slides, these members and NGO workers conduct seminars involving media personnel, anganwadis and panchayat members. "We hold a kudumbasangamam so that parents of these juvenile delinquents get a better understanding of dealing with their child" says M.A. Jose, superintendent of Government Juvenile Justice Home. The problem, experts say, is that Child's Rights is a concept that's unheard of in Kerala. The notion, apparently is that a child is, after all, only a child and he "cannot" have any rights.

The revised Juvenile Justice Act, he says, is an excellent provision but if it is to be implemented successfully, the public needs to be better equipped. Academic failure is not always the cause behind the suicides. Returning to an empty home after school hours, dependence on hired help who can be just about anyone available and the feelings of alienation typical to nuclear family set-up — these are some of the added miseries that plague the child. Says Dr. Jos Chathukulam, director of CRM Counselling Centre, "Kids are sometimes brought to us because their parents feel they are developing too close an affection with their servants". In Kerala, there is no other employment sector in which persons are hired so quickly and easily. "All that the family looks for is the factor of availability. These servants, who are sometimes only in their teens, obviously have no knowledge of child-rearing and they can do more harm than good" says Jos. In fact, the incidence of infection is very high with children brought up by domestic help.

Even when the parents suspect physical abuse, the child's sympathy still lies with the servant during the counselling sessions, says Jos, indicating the extent to which the child feels alienated from his parents. It is the right of the child to be nourished and cared for by its parents. "If parents can take leave from work during the child's board exams, why can't they make that priority in his growing years?" asks Jos.

And when it finally comes to counselling, some parents refuse to participate. "They say the problem is with their child, not with them. Awareness is what we are primarily striving for," says Dr. Singh, "to help the parents help their kids adopt social skills and develop self-esteem and confidence, with or without academic merit."

After all, it is people who are responsible for creating a marks-oriented education system. A complete turn-around of priorities — cut down on career ambitions and focusing more on bringing up one's own child — says Dr. Philip John, psychiatrist and former IMA president, is essential for forging a better relationship with one's child. And Child's Rights must become an issue that's impossible to ignore. Surely, the number of children killing themselves proves this.

The process is sure to be slow. But representatives of the Juvenile Welfare Board insist the concept of child's rights will not continue to remain alien for long.

May be in a few years, some children might just take the option to live.

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