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India is a story of gains and gaps: UNICEF Representative

Aug 07, 2013

Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF India Representative, in an interview with OneWorld South Asia, strongly states child marriage is a big impediment to women's true empowerment. Excerpts from the interview.

Louis-Georges Arsenault

OneWorld South Asia: Despite the law banning engaging children for labour below 14, thousands of children are still toiling for their livelihood. How can the law be made to work in a better way?

Louis-Georges Arsenault: The present law on child labour prohibits work of children below 14, only in certain hazardous occupations. However, the proposed new legislation on child labour, which is presently in the Parliament, will ban all forms of child labour below 14. The proposed legislation is progressive, and if implemented effectively, can ensure that children below 14 are not engaged in labour.

The challenge with implementation of the law is the limited implementation machinery and poor coordination and convergence amongst various stakeholders - including labour inspectors, police, child welfare committees and the civil society. However, we also know that the law alone cannot be the solution. Awareness amongst community member, families and children about the harms of child labour and importance of education is critical.

The Right To Education (RTE) Act gives us another significant opportunity to ensure that all children in the 6-14 year age group get quality education. RTE, if implemented effectively, can ensure that children will remain in school and learn, rather than being pushed into work.

We also need to effectively link vulnerable families with social protection schemes, NREGA and so on, so that adults in the families earn well, and vulnerable families get additional support to ensure that they send children to school, and not to work.

OWSA: How do you look at the child marriage of girls in India and in what way do they undermine the government’s claims of empowering young women in the subcontinent?

Arsenault: Child marriage is a violation of children's rights. Child marriage is also illegal in India. Child marriage denies girls the opportunity to develop to their full potential.

Child marriage negatively affects girls' education, development, health, and future. Girls who are married off as children drop out of school, if they work, are poorly paid, and have limited decision-making power at home. They are also vulnerable to violence and abuse from husbands and other older members from the family. Girls who are married as children become pregnant while they are still adolescent, and yet not capable of child bearing. This increases their risk of death (maternal mortality), as well as risk to their children - infant mortality and malnutrition.

Child marriage is a big impediment to women's true empowerment. The child marriage prohibition act of 2006 is a progressive legislation in this regard.

We have seen that girls, when equipped with knowledge, can influence their own families and communities. It is important to facilitate girls' collectives, where they can come together, share knowledge, and create avenues for girls to discuss their lives, aspirations, challenges, and opportunities. This, in turn will contribute to their empowerment.

The SABLA programme of the Government of India for adolescent girls is a step in the right direction, and its effective implementation will add to efforts towards girls and women's empowerment and to prevent child marriages.

OWSA: To what extent barriers like the absence of clean drinking water and sanitation cause children to avoid schools in a country like India?

Arsenault: Every child has the right to education. The absence of safe drinking water and separate toilets for girls and boys undermines this principle.

The absence of basic facilities coupled with poor hygiene practices (for example failure to handwash with soap) risks children being vulnerable to diarrhoea and worm infestations, particularly during their early years. This has a negative and lasting impact on the growth, health, and cognitive development of children.

Many girls are reluctant to continue schooling when toilet and hand washing facilities are not private, safe, clean, or simply not available. Thus not having WASH facilities in schools would mean losing out the opportunity of having educated girls who are much more likely to raise healthy, well-nourished, educated and empowered children.

According to government sources, only 70% of those toilets constructed in rural schools are functional, though independent sources quote a much lower figure.

UNICEF is working closely with the GOI's Mid-day Meal Programme to advocate for adequate provision of water, sanitation and handwashing facilities for some 110 million children enrolled in India’s 1.4 million government schools.

OWSA: Why do you think despite the economic boom in India, children's rights are being violated on a large scale?

Arsenault: The story of India is one of growth, gains and gaps. The progress on social indicators has not matched the pace of economic growth resulting in wide disparities between and within states and there are inequalities that persist within sub groups of the population - women and children, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Disparities exist within geographical areas, social identities and gender. Around 100 million children are in the poorest quintile. One half of all the poor children belong to depressed sections like scheduled castes and tribes.

OWSA: A latest UNICEF report stresses for ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. How crucial is the recommendation in the Indian context?

Arsenault: India has already ratified the UNCRPD on October 1, 2007. India was the 7th country in the world and the first major country to do so.  The Convention marks a ‘paradigm shift’ in attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities are not viewed as “objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection; rather as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.
There are many provisions not there in current Indian laws, however, since its ratification, the Government of India has started the process of amending and formulating new laws in place of earlier disability laws.

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