When visiting India recently, I was struck by a story that appeared in a newspaper which described the outpouring of grief from residents in an apartment block in the city that I was staying in. The priests from a nearby Hindu temple held a gathering in the street to express the community’s condolences at the death of two monkeys that had lived in a close by apartment block. Hundreds attended and the event commanded several inches of column space in the Bangalore Times.
In fact, the monkeys had been shot by an irate resident as they frequently caused havoc when they succeeded in getting into apartments. The man who despatched them and who had been a resident in the apartment block is now on the run and being sought by the police to answer charges under the Protection of Wildlife Acts. He has had to leave his job and family behind him to become a fugitive.
India is this sort of place. It is an amazing and awful place. It assaults your senses on many levels. Busy roads may be thrown into chaos by a lethargic cow having a leisurely stroll down the middle of the street. Everything in the city is hectic and at a frantic pace. Large, modern buildings occupy streets that have pavements that are in such poor condition that pedestrians have to walk on the road.
Living in a small country on the outer fringes of Europe, I was completely unused to the scale of the place. India has over a billion of a population many of whom are children. The same day that I read about the two dead monkeys I also read in a national magazine widely circulated in India that forty eight per cent of the country’s estimated three million prostitutes are children. Many of these will have been trafficked from other regions to work in the “Flesh Trade”.
It struck me as bizarre that the passing of two monkeys should stimulate communal grief when the suffering of children appears to pass unnoticed. India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. They signed in 1992 which happens to be the same year as the United Kingdom. Admittedly, they have not submitted a report on their compliance with the UNCRC since 2001, which is some twelve years ago.
As someone who has spent their entire working life trying to protect children from preventable harm, it was very difficult to come to terms with the selective consciences of some people whom I met there. The fact is that children in poverty in India suffer very greatly. They are at the bottom of the pile and survival for them is a daily challenge.
You may well ask why India signed the UNCRC in the first place if they were not prepared to meet the standards set. I cannot provide an answer but the fact remains that they did. They are committed to providing the children of India with services that comply with the rights set out in the Convention. These are not in place at present and although there are a number of wonderful and inspirational people who are trying very hard to rescue children from abuse, the need far out weights the capacity of the services to respond.
During my visit, I met and worked with people who are trying to combat the trafficking of children into the city. Many of these young people come from Bangladesh and have been sold by their families or people known to them, to pay a debt. I heard some tragic stories that were heart breaking to listen to. Children end up in bonded labour and find themselves many miles away from home, where they cannot speak the local language which is Kannada, and having to work for very long hours. These children could be as young as eleven.
Human trafficking is very important for the economy of Bangladesh. Corruption exists in government and vast sums of money are made by officials and traffickers. It is estimated that the trade is the second highest earner of foreign income for the struggling Bangladesh economy.
It is very difficult for Western Europeans to appreciate the suffering of trafficked young people. Helping them is not straightforward. Rescues may succeed in taking the child out of the bonded labour but repatriation may not be immediately advisable for fear of them being resold on their return home.
When I worked in child protection offices in Northern Ireland, a concern that many had was the experience of “burn out”. This term refers to the condition that many professionals acquire if they are exposed to high levels of stress for long periods of time, without gaining respite or having the chance to relieve that stress. They “burn out”. I have the greatest respect for many of the workers that I had the opportunity to meet both within the anti-trafficking teams and in the wider care system, for their ability to keep going and to do so with enthusiasm. To the very best of their ability and with very meagre resources they try to offer the most professional service that they can.
I went to India to provide training and to support the work that is taking place there particularly with trafficked children. This training was an attempt to share learning gained from social care experiences here in Western Europe with colleagues in India. I ended up learning an immense amount myself about the importance of our own humanity, values, feelings, and innate sense of concern for the condition of others. These elements lie at the very heart of effective helping in social work and child safeguarding in particular. In prosperous Western Europe, the importance of staying in touch with these elements is often forgotten. What India did was to help me reconnect with what brought me into this area of work in the first place many years ago.
On reflection, I believe I owe a debt of thanks to “Two Dead Monkeys”. The invisible misery of children in that amazing and awful country is a matter that deserves all our attention. If the UNCRC is to mean anything then it has to be enforceable in some way. If you sign it and ignore it, then international reputational damage would seem to be the least that any nation could expect as a consequence.