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Mrs Chatterjee v/s Norway: The film should provoke wider conversations on plugging gaps in childcare

www.indianexpress.com | February 28, 2023
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India does not have adequate safety mechanisms for children who face abuse at home. It’s time to build systems for their protection.

The film Mrs Chatterjee v/s Norway, set to be released on March 17, chronicles the traumatic story of Sagarika Bhattacharya and her ex-husband whose very young children were forcibly taken away by the Norwegian child welfare authorities, the Barnevernet, in 2011 because they believed that the children were being abused. It subsequently became a diplomatic row since the Chatterjees and their children were Indian citizens.

This was not the first — or the last — such intervention by the Norwegian state. Migrant families have especially been under scrutiny because their child-rearing practices (co-sleeping for example) are different from the cultural practices of the country. In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Norway had violated the right to respect for privacy and family life, home, and correspondence which is protected under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights because of the forced child removal in multiple cases. The ECHR fined Norway because a child was removed from a Somali family, and put up for adoption.

Child protection rules, such as banning physical punishment for disciplinary infractions, are, in fact, beneficial for children, and in the case of the Bhattacharyas, this was one of the reasons (even if it happened just once) that made the family reunification process more arduous. The film has unsettled many Indian immigrant families in Europe. For example, a social media post in the largest international mother’s group in the Netherlands, Amsterdam Mamas, indicated the worries of several South Asians.

India is home to nearly 440 million children, one of the highest numbers in a single country. Yet, we do not have adequate mechanisms to ensure a safety net for children, should homes turn out to be unsafe. UNICEF argues that figures on violence against children, their exploitation, and abuse are likely to be underestimated because most of these cases are not reported.

The only government-initiated comprehensive survey of child abuse in the country was conducted in 2007 which covered 13 Indian states. It described child abuse as the “…intended, unintended, and perceived maltreatment of the child, whether habitual or not”. It is noteworthy that not intending to harm does not absolve the perpetrator(s) of responsibility.

The 2007 study revealed that more than 50 per cent of Indian children reported sexual abuse and 69 per cent said they were subjected to physical abuse. Forty-nine per cent of the children who reported abuse accused a family member, and in 89 of these cases, the offenders were parents. Worryingly, 15 per cent said that they had swelling, bleeding, or sustained a serious injury due to the violence. More than 50 per cent reported emotional abuse and in 83 per cent of the cases, parents were the perpetrators. Unsurprisingly, children living on the streets or in institutions reported the highest rates of abuse.

There are four child protection laws in India — the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection Act, 2000, amended in 2015), the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006), the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO Act, 2012), and the Child Labour Protection and Regulation Act (1986, amended in 2016) that are meant to protect children’s interests. But laws are not enough if unsupported by adequate resourcing to implement them.

Last year, the Union ministry of women and child development decided to merge Childline number 1098 with the general emergency number 112. This implies that the first interaction of a child in distress will be with the police. The police are not trained to handle children, they are often overworked, and police departments are understaffed. In a recent instance when I called Childline in my city to report a possible case of child trafficking, I received an automated message: “This number doesn’t exist”. What happened in my quest to report this is a different story, but the tragedy is that the whereabouts of the child couldn’t be traced despite my landing at the police station within 10 minutes of having spotted the child.

At the cost of belabouring the obvious, children are especially vulnerable — they are physically smaller and dependent for all their needs. If they are very young, especially, they rarely report instances of abuse because it is often a trusted adult who violates them, and most importantly, they have nowhere else to go. Children are rendered even more vulnerable by intersecting inequities such as caste, class, and ability.

India doesn’t have a child fostering system that would allow neglected or abused children to be temporarily placed in safe family environments. One of the main reasons why children run away is because of difficult home conditions. Often they find themselves in equally bad or worse situations. It’s time that we stop letting down the vast majority of our children and build systems that work for their protection.

Prof. Sreeparna Chattopadhyay is the faculty of sociology at FLAME University.

(Source:- https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/mrs-chatterjee-vs-norway-rani-mukherjee-childcare-8469076/ )