Vasudev Sharma, Executive Director of the NGO Child Rights Trust (CRT), who has overseen the growth of the child helpline 1098 in Bengaluru, has an anecdote about its reach. Once, his team members saw a family at Patna railway station with a child who looked as if he didn’t belong. They called Sharma, and he organised help from Patna’s 1098 team.
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The boy was rescued and reunited with his own family, and was not forced into child labour. That’s just one example of how Childline can play a decisive role in the rescue of vulnerable children.
Currently, 1098 is the most accessible helpline to report any issue related to children. Anyone can call the number and report physical, mental or sexual abuse of children, any possibility of trafficking or sexual assault, or other problems like corporal punishment at schools. Also, callers who wish to be unidentified can remain so. 1098 is a toll-free number accessible all over India.
Sharma describes how the helpline’s access has grown, “It is the oldest helpline for children. In Karnataka, it is part of the RTE (Right to Education) Rules – every school and education institute has to display the Childline number prominently. Apart from creating awareness, it also sends a message that anyone can approach Childline.”
Most interventions in Bengaluru on child labour, begging
The maximum complaints that Childline gets in Bengaluru are on child labour and children being forced into begging. Sharma says that complaints on child sexual abuse have been increasing too. The city also reports cases of abandonment, especially of newborns who often have some form of disability or are girls.
According to CHILDLINE India Foundation’s 2017 report, 25,210 calls were received from Bengaluru city that year. Of these, most calls – over 20,000 – were to get information on various aspects including the steps to be taken on seeing a child in difficulty.
Of the remaining 5,032 calls, the majority were for protection from abuse, and for restoring a child to his family/native place. Over 500 calls were on missing children – 365 to report a lost child, and 157 from parents seeking help. There were also around 500 calls each on shelter for children, and for emotional support and guidance.
How is the helpline run?
CHILDLINE India Foundation, formed in 1999, currently covers 549 districts across India. The helpline 1098 “receives approximately 20% of all children’s calls on helplines working worldwide”.
The helpline is operated by Childline Contact Centres (CCCs) in five locations – Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Gurgaon. All calls to 1098 are received in these 24/7 call centres. From the call centre, relevant calls are routed to the collaborative/support NGO of the respective city and the police is informed if required.
Support NGOs are organisations working in the field of child rights, capable of rescuing, rehabilitating and counselling children. On getting a call from the CCC, the support NGO initiates an action plan for fact-finding and intervention, and for rescue operation if needed. They also work with various government departments including women and child welfare, labour, and the police.
In Bengaluru, three organisations work as support NGOs:
- BOSCO (Bengaluru Oniyavara Seva Coota)
- APSA (Association for Promoting Social Action)
CRT, the nodal agency for Childline in the city, serves as the point of contact for the support NGOs and government departments.
R Radha of the support NGO APSA says, “APSA gets 10 to 12 cases through the helpline everyday. These are mostly pertaining to begging, RTE violations (such as children not getting admission in private schools), and child labour.”
After getting the call, APSA does an in-depth fact-finding study on the field, and also collaborates with government departments if rescue is necessary. It also gives medical and psychological support to the rescued children on a case-to-case basis.
In addition to the 1098 cases, APSA takes action on coming across cases during their outreach programmes or on getting calls to their office number. However they encourage people to call Childline directly.
Radha says, “Calling the Childline number serves two purposes. One, the call is recorded and hence the problem is officially documented. Two, the national network of 1098 can be activated rapidly if required, especially in cases of trafficking.”
|In addition to 1098, Bengaluru City Police runs the Makkala Sahaya Vani helpline 10924, under project Parihar. When we tried calling this number, it rang but was not answered. Additionally, there is the police helpline 100 which will take any distress call and initiate action.|
The railway initiative
CHILDLINE Foundation also has 118 Child Help Desks in railway stations across India. The need for a separate railway initiative was felt given the number of children who run away, go missing or are trafficked for child labour/abuse. People can directly approach these help desks.
The support NGO Sathi works exclusively in railway premises, and has an office at Yeshwantpur railway station where several trains from North India terminate. Mounesh of Sathi says they rescue 30 to 40 children every month; of them, about 70 percent are aged between 14 and 16 years.
He says, “Sometimes they have run away from homes, sometimes they are brought by contractors for child labour. We try to rescue them and send them to their native places after counselling. But any action against the contractors is almost impossible since trafficking or kidnapping cases are rarely pursued or proven in courts. This means the cycle goes on.”
Prosecution is complicated in these cases as the parents themselves may have sent the child to work against a loan, or the child may have run away, Mounesh says. At any time, Sathi’s personnel keep an eye out for vulnerable children on railway platforms.
What happens after rescue?
After a child is rescued – either from the streets or from any form of employment or confinement – the team checks if he needs medical attention, food or cleanup, and provides these. The child is then presented before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), a quasi-judicial body, as per the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. CWC comprises a chairperson and four members who are usually experts working in the area of child rights.
The committee can decide if the child has to be sent to a shelter home, and for how long. Following this, if the child’s parents or guardians are located, he would be sent back to his hometown. CWC can also order counselling and rehabilitation of the child.
Rehabilitation is a complex issue
Childline’s role is limited to addressing calls, ensuring action including rescue, and presenting the child before the CWC. But rehabilitation is a complex, often unresolved issue, in case of children who need further care and protection, point out child rights activists.
As Mounesh says, since punitive action is rarely possible in cases of child labour and trafficking, the risk of children returning to the city in the same manner is fairly high.
Kavita Ratna, Director-Advocacy at the NGO The Concerned for Working Children, says, “The challenge is to ensure that the children, who leave their native villages because of abject poverty, get some relief at the village level. Even if they are rescued and sent back from here, if there is no food on their plates, they are bound to come back.” And they become more difficult to track the second time, “which makes them more vulnerable to abuse.”
Then there are children who live and work on the streets with their families who are poor migrants, beggars or manual workers. These children are perhaps safer and happier with their own family on the street rather than in a shelter home.
Though solutions to the issue of rehabilitation are not sufficient or entirely satisfactory, there is no doubt about the need and efficacy of Childline service, says Sharma. He urges people to be proactive, “Whenever people come across a case of child abuse – physical, sexual or mental – keeping quiet is being party to it. Please don’t panic. Don’t be afraid of complaining. You will be helping a child.”
He assures,”Confidentiality is always maintained, but people must come forward and not let any case of child abuse go unreported.”
[Note: This article has been updated to reflect the latest number of Child Help Desks and of districts covered by Childline]