Sunday, August 16, 2015

Taking care of children of vulnerable families

While we celebrate 68 years of Independence, I recall days of my prison assignment when I saw many children with their mother in the jail. The Indian prison system allows women lodged in jails to keep their children with them up to the age of six.
The children were there as their mothers wanted to keep them safe. On one of my first visits in the jail, soon after taking over as the inspector general (IG prisons), I asked the superintendent why were these children were not in school? He said: "Madam, there is no school and there is no teacher. We don't even have the budget for education in the prison complex housing more than 9,700 inmates (at that time)."
These children, as I saw, knew the language of courts, lawyers, and crime. The games they played were how to track and crush insects and play knife-knife. They knew the art of pick-pocketing and they could demonstrate it without any hesitation. For them, it was a sport.
Nursery school in jail
One of immediate things which we did was to open a nursery school on the jail premises. We carved out a space from within the women's ward compound and separated the children from their mothers through the day. We connected with the community and asked for donations in kind for books, toys and stationery. It all arrived. And we started the school. Educated women inmates were asked to take charge along with Catholic nuns who came and volunteered to serve. The place was also visited by Mother Teresa. The children were given school uniforms and bags. This created a whole new atmosphere inside the women's prisons.
Women inmates were told to ready their children for school at 8am. Mothers loved the idea of their children getting education. We also took the children for outings to parks, doll museums and zoos. The whole idea was to educate the children in a free and fair environment.
The challenge
But then came a challenge. What do we do with the children above the age of six? This is was the upper age limit of staying with mothers in the jail. These women did not want to send their children to shelter homes for various reasons. Primarily being the feeling of insecurity. Meanwhile, the children's school on the Tihar jail premises had been institutionalised and christened as India Vision School after I received the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
But when I was transferred from the Tihar jail, I started looking for a safe place where these children could continue learning. As nature conspires and gives you what you truly ask, one day Catholic nuns of Assisi Convent School approached me for providing education and hostel facility to girl children of prisoners. We only had to provide the hostel and school fee. This led to the start of the Children of Vulnerable Families Project in 1994. It still continues to serve, linking the prison nursery school with missionary schools outside. Today, the India Vision Foundation (IVF) reaches out to nearly 300 families with similar programmes running in four state prisons of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.
Last week, the programme came together for its first alumni meet. Over 70 children, now grown up, some in college and universities, some married and some employed attended it. It was a reward of over 20 years of work, which started in 1994. We decided to use the opportunity to ask them a few questions to help analyse and reflect. Here are a few of the answers being shared and also the essential learning for us as a community.
Question: If you get a chance to change something in your childhood, what is it that you will like to change and why?
Answers: (Indicative) They all longed for togetherness of their parents. They all wished to be with them. Homes which saw violence and disrespect of their mother were distressing to them. Father's drunkenness impacted them. Poverty agonised them. Disease impoverished them more. They all longed for love, care and opportunities like others. They wanted to share their feelings but some had none. They overcame these because of care we gave them.
Question: How did you deal with your parents' criminal background?
Answers: (Indicative) One said: "She saw the wrongs, but ignored them. I still loved them." Another one said: "It was embarrassing when some of my classmates came to know that my parents were in jail. After a certain period of time, I started to think that everything happens for a reason. If they had not gone to the jail, I would not have got a chance to go to a good school." (Sent by India Vision Foundation running the Children of Vulnerable Families Project).  Another said: "I used to run away from my friends' remarks till a senior counsellor trained me how to respond to them."
Yearning for parents' love
The alumni meet revealed that children who suffer at a very early age never forget their lost opportunities. They yearn for their parents' love. They love proximity. Poverty hits them hard. They want both, mother and father. They all wanted to be educated from English medium schools. Hindi alone limits their opportunities. We found girls more expressive in sharing their feelings than boys. They were equally more sensitive.
Lessons learnt were that each child is a life whatever the circumstances might be. Children suffer when parents and teachers fail in their responsibilities. Some children manage to emerge, others take a long time. All need handholding in such circumstances. But all are not so fortunate.
By taking care of such children, the community has succeeded in saving girls from early or forced marriages (as they said in their responses). The foundation and the residential schooling protected them from being victimised or exploited. Boys too were saved from behavioural delinquency or repeating crimes as seen. Sincere collective community effort saves lives. It just needs love of heart and compassion. Children are our future. Parenting is a huge responsibility. Do not undermine it. Never take away your child's childhood.