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Children fight child trafficking

By Shobha Warrier in Chennai
July 18, 2006 17:33 IST
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I am very angry. Why am I not allowed to play on the road like boys? Why am I not allowed to stand near the gate? Why am I not allowed to ride a bicycle around? My mother, my paatti and all the other women in the neighbourhood say that because I am a girl, I am not supposed to do all this. I don't think I am different from boys. But they want me to go for film shootings, which I don't want to go to. I want to go to school, study and play. What should I do?" Bharati, all of 11 years old, asked of the parliament.

"I came to know that many girls from my neighbourhood are kidnapped to be used as beggars. What should we do to prevent this?" was Kalai Selvi's question to the parliament.

The prime minister, Ahmed Sheeba, a class X student, replied: "We know that many children are kidnapped by unknown people to be used as beggars. We also know that many children are forced to do so many things by their own mothers. What we plan to do is, our members will go around and tell other children to be careful about strangers."

The Children's Parliament -- where all the action mentioned above is happening -- is a unique concept developed by the Indian Community Welfare Organisation, a voluntary organisation that works in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and community welfare of commercial sex workers. 

Working closely with commercial sex workers meant the ICWO also worked for their children. They found the children were most exploited and abused. Among various forms of exploitation, child trafficking is the most widely prevalent.

A J Hariharan, the man behind ICWO, said between 700,000 and 4 million people are trafficked annually worldwide. From its study, the ICWO found that child trafficking is the third-largest source of profit in organised crime after drugs and arms.

Over 60 per cent of the affected belong to the backward classes. In cross-border trafficking, India is a sending, receiving and transit nation.

Traffickers in India receive children from Bangladesh and Nepal, and send women and children to Middle East nations.

India and Pakistan are the main destinations for children under 16 who are trafficked in South Asia. Some more shocking statistics: 25 per cent of approximately 2.3 million sex workers in India are minors.

The ICWO also found that poverty, lack of education, unemployment, migration in search of livelihood or desire for glamorous jobs in big cities and globalisation are some of the major causes for child trafficking.

Many girls from various parts of Tamil Nadu and also from nearby states come to Chennai dreaming of jobs and making it big in films, but most of them end up as sex workers. 

In the first Children's Parliament session conducted in a hotel, about 100 children participated and they elected their prime minister, ministers and the speaker. The topics discussed were about how the society they live in violates four major rights of children -- the right to live, right to grow, right to protection and right to participation.

Each group shared its experiences on how they felt those rights are violated.

The main objective of the Children's Parliament was to identify and train child parliamentarians to address the issues related to child trafficking and child development, and also to prevent children of sex workers from being trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

When we met these children on a weekend evening, all the members of the parliament were on the terrace roof discussing some of their problems. As the children spoke loudly -- as all children generally do -- Ponnuvel, the speaker, said, "It is tough keeping them quiet. When we had our first proper parliament session in a hotel, I had a tough time managing the members."

Ponnuvel, the very articulate speaker, is a 14-year-old student of class IX. "It was when the ICWO told us about child trafficking that we knew such a thing existed. Now, all of us know we have to be careful."

Another issue Ponnuvel felt very strongly about was children running way from homes.

"Many children run away when their parents beat them. Many children stop going to school not only because of poverty but because their parents do not buy books for them. Once they run away from home, they end up in all sorts of places. So, what we do is, we identify such children, then meet the parents and try to educate them on these issues. If the parents are careful, we can put an end to child trafficking to a large extent," said the young leader.

Ever since the parliament started functioning, eight such children were identified and rescued by members of the ministry concerned.

The minister then informed the prime minister and the speaker about them who in turn alerted the ICWO. The ICWO took care of the children's education, and saw to it that they went back to school.

When Rekha, the development minister, asked her members to identify such children, they found that at times parents themselves stopped their children from going to school.

"We want to put an end to all that. Our members found out the children who had stopped going to school, and now thanks to the ICWO, they are back in school. We must have identified at least 50 problems children from our background face. Our objective is to solve as many as possible," Rekha said.

So involved is Rekha in her role as minister that when she grows up, she wants to be an active member of an NGO that works for children like her.

What hurt Malarvizhi, another child parliamentarian, was the way teachers treated them if they didn't do their homework. "We were asked to stand outside for long hours. I cannot finish my homework because my mother asks me to do all the housework -- doing the dishes, washing the clothes and cleaning the house. After that, I have no time to do homework," Malarvizhi said.

The ICWO decided to help such children by arranging meetings every evening where elders called 'mentors' help them with their homework. "We can't change what is followed in school. So, we help these children," Palani, an ICWO field worker, said.

Another worrying issue for the children was, "our parents ask us to go for cinema shootings, and not to school. How can we prevent that?"

Palani said, "Since we have made them aware about child trafficking, even if their mothers ask them to go 'for film shootings,' they will not go now. Even if their mothers ask them to go and work, they refuse and say that they want to study. This is the kind of awareness we want to spread.'

As I was about to leave, the children had stopped being members of the parliament; they were fully immersed in their homework.

Obviously, grown-ups can learn many lessons from the earnestness of these young lawmakers.

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Shobha Warrier in Chennai