Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Children Caught in a Quagmire

Afsana speaks of the special children with a bleak future

(Ms. Afsana Rashid, 30, was born and raised in Srinagar and attended the Minto Circle High School. She graduated from the Government College for Women with a Bachelor's degree in science, and completed her post-graduation degree from the University of Kashmir, obtaining her Master's Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism. She has received numerous world-wide recognition and awards for covering economic depravation and gender sensitive issues in Kashmiri journals, which include Sanjoy Ghose Humanitarian Award, Bhorukha Trust Media Award 2007, and the 2006-07 UNFPA-Ladli Media Award. Her work on "Impact of conflict on subsistence livelihood of marginalised communities in Kashmir and Alternatives", was recognized by Action Aid India in 2005-06. She has travelled abroad attending a workshop on "conflict Reporting" by Thomson Foundation, Cardiff, UK, and a seminar for women in conflict areas by IKV Pax Christi, Netherlands. In February 2008, she compiled a book, "Waiting for Justice: Widows and Half-widows." Afsana is the chief correspondent of the Daily Khidmat (English edition), correspondent for the Tribune (Chandigarh) and publisher of a new monthly journal, RealityBites.)

The issue of special children in Kashmir conflict

Absence of social support network for special children in Indian administered Kashmir for the last 18 years of conflict has witnessed number of special homes emerge, with no rules to govern them.

Though special homes are not considered an ultimate answer to increasing number of special children in valley still the need is felt. Experts emphasize community-based relief, which according to them would provide succour to these children.

"There are 80,000 special children in valley, how to nourish them is a question. Definitely, special homes are no solution but for catering and nourishing of some of them, homes play a vital role," says A R Hanjura, well-known social activist and attorney.

Hanjura believes it to be a societal problem. "There has to be community-based relief. Community must be aware and Imams (clerics) who are influential should come forward to make community aware. The community should give sustainability to widow-headed-families," says Hanjura.

Dr. Rouf Mohi-ud-din Director Koshish, a social group working for issues of children and marginalized and former chairman Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation (local NGO running a special home as well) too believes that there is no alternative especially when state is not taking responsibility for such human beings, particularly children.

"The organization does not believe in upholding the concept of special homes. But when children who have no support are around, we need to go for institutions. We are forced to go for such homes, which by and large is not accepted by the Islamic society," says Dr. Rouf.

According to Hanjura, there are 17 special homes in non-government organization (NGO) sector. "No revelation, no similarity, no common laws, no facility of standard and no rules govern them. Nothing is there. It is a new thing to have these homes here. Artificial family can not replace natural family. Women of the deceased lack guidance but community has to support them," observes Hanjura.

Before 1990's a special child would mostly get adopted by his/her relative or neighbour in accordance with religious and social practice. Consequently, need for special home was never felt. This is supported by the fact, only one special home existed in Srinagar city before 1986, in a report, "The children living in orphanages in Kashmir: an exploration of their nurture, nature and needs," (JK Practitioner - journal of current medical science and practice Volume 13, supplement 1 (2006)).

The journal further mentions that until 1996-97 not many NGOs functioned in the state especially in domain of orphan care. However, all the special homes, according to the report, take care of 1000-2000 children with the result 80-90 percent of special children still continue to wait for help.

The report observes that though no single special child died of hunger in Kashmir over these years, yet they are part of underprivileged lot that requires special attention involving extra ordinary efforts. Quoting UNICEF, the report puts number of special children in valley at hundred thousand.

The report suggests that more convenient method would be to help surviving relatives of special children to bring up these children in a traditional family atmosphere, which is only possible if the collective conscience of society awakens from the slumber of indifference. This will have many long-term collateral gains, not only for special children, but also for society, at large.

Deliberating on how these children land in special homes, another report, "Psychiatric disorders among children living in orphanages-Experience from Kashmir" in the journal says that children have been exposed to traumatic conditions in form of being witness to killing of their near ones or have experienced traumatic events themselves. Many children, adds the report, were themselves rendered homeless and many orphaned. Because of loss of social support network which chronic conflict is known to cause, many of these young traumatized children landed up in special homes, concludes the report.

Generally, experts believe that children in institutional care are extremely vulnerable to psychological problems and institutionalization in early childhood or long-term increase chances of their growing into psychologically impaired and economically unproductive adults. Some experts, however, argue that special homes are only viable option for survival of these children.

Most researchers believe special homes to be breeding grounds for many psychiatric problems. They also, opine that this concept loses its relevance at places affected with long-term conflicts (like Kashmir), poverty or countries devastated by various disasters (JK practitioner).

"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was the commonest psychiatric disorders (40-62 percent) easily attributable to prevailing mass trauma state of almost two decades. Next commonest diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) (25 percent) and Conversion Disorder (12.5 percent). A high psychopathology in special homes could be an important guide for policy makers to plan for better rehabilitation and social reintegration of special children," reads the findings of report, "Psychiatric disorders among children living in orphanages- Experience from Kashmir" (JK Practitioner).

The report says that there is a general agreement among researchers that children placed in special home settings at a young age and for long periods of time are at greatly increased risks for development of serious psychopathology later in life.

According to JK Practitioner, individuals placed in special homes early in their lives are at greater risk when they reach adulthood of living in poverty, developing psychiatric disorders, having difficulties in inter personal relationships and having serious problems parenting their own children.

"Because of social stigma, special children feel isolated," says Hanjura adding, "Despite having institutional facilities special children want to be with their mothers. They want to be in community, not in special homes which they consider as prison once they attain age of puberty."

The social activist emphasizing family support, support from community, organization and government says, "Special children face psychological problems while living in these homes."

However, Dr Arshid Hussain, a renowned psychiatrist believes that effects of special homes cannot be generalized, though he too subscribes to need for social support.

"The way we get these children to special homes affects their overall development. But there is no severe health problem," says Dr Arshid adding, 5-6 out of 60 cases of special children show certain problems which, however, doesn't arise due to special homes.

The psychiatrist argues that mental health of some special children has improved in these homes. According to him, they were in deep despondency when they were brought to these places where they were offered schooling and their physical health improved. Stressing on alternate social structure, he said that concept of boarding schools can be a better option.

Usually, death of their fathers followed by economic constraints at home renders young children homeless and they seek 'refuge' in special homes. Promotion of special homes is, however, not helping the cause, says Dr Rouf adding, "Orphanage culture is the last resort for those who have none to look after."

But, Dr Rouf observes that such institutions (special homes) are encouraged by certain elements "with an aim to amass wealth." According to him, earlier special children were taken care by the society itself. "As their number increased, institutions were encouraged. Putting a group of children in a house is an easy way to collect alms from people. Whereas organizations who work for welfare of such children in their home-setting do not find it easy to collect donations from people," said Dr Rouf.

He adds that society is not much supportive to organizations that work for mentally and physical challenged people and lepers as it is for those working for special children.

Dr. Rouf says that apart from economic constraints, less working days, unemployment, death of breadwinner (father) and mother engaged in menial jobs (after her husband's death), it is the encouragement from the society that compel such children to land up in special homes.

According to Dr. Rouf most of the special homes are located in and around Srinagar City, which he says makes relatives to consider it a feasible option for special children.

"People request us to admit the special children in such homes. They think children would get better education and other facilities here, but frankly speaking these homes are nothing more than shelter homes," says Dr. Rouf adding, "When such children return to their homes they are absolute misfits."

He adds that roughly 2000-3000 children live in these "shelter homes" and the only positive thing about these homes is that people know their children would not get exploited.

Hanjura however, says, "Those who have lost everything land up in orphanages," adding, "Sometimes people feel insecure particularly in border areas because of presence of troops and militants. To keep their children away from that environment, they consider special homes a viable option."

Adding another dimension to the story, there exists no Act in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to regulate functioning of special homes. Simply registering organizations does not entitle people to run the homes.

Dr. Rouf vehemently argues that those running special homes in the state are not legally licensed to do so, as there is no Act to govern their functioning.

"It is strange that rules are made for animals, plants and environment but unfortunately there is no licensing for special homes. Simply, they are registered under Societies Registration Act, 1961 under which you simply get registration certificates but that never entitles you to run these institutions. No Act is in place to govern functioning of these institutions and there is no legal authority as well," says Dr. Rouf.

He said that under Orphanages and Charitable Homes (OCH) Act, 1966 you are supposed to get a license from government for running special home or child home and fundamental human rights ought to be respected. Citing examples, he said garbage should be away from such institutions and caretakers of these institutions ought to have basic knowledge about child psychology. "How far such things are taken into account, no body bothers," argues Dr. Rouf.

Absence of Act lead Hanjura to file Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking for formation of an apex body or monitoring body that would govern roles and functions of these institutions.

"There should definitely be someone to monitor functioning of these special homes," says Hanjura. There are however, no rules, no procedures, no norms that could govern them, he adds. Act for regulation of special homes is need of hour, he maintains.

Stressing need for dedicated and honest people in special homes, he said that requirement becomes all the more important as special children have no one to guide them. Hanjura however, stresses that children should not be detached from their respective homes and put in special homes as long as even single parent, particularly mothers, are there. Though organizations can support them but they should be kept in their own surroundings, says Hanjura.

In the present circumstances, wherever it is difficult to give custody of a special girl child to her relatives as she can be easily exploited, he finds the role of such institutions but stresses that special homes should not be followed as norm.

Another social activist who wished not to be identified questions role of government in monitoring such institutions. The social activist stresses formulating of an independent regulatory body that would monitor activities and functioning of these institutions.

"People from different fields and non governmental organizations (NGOs) should at least constitute a body to monitor functioning of the homes," suggests the activist.

Tanveer Ahmad, a volunteer however, believes empowering local police with special powers to check functioning of these institutions, as a viable option. Otherwise, Tanveer says, certain elements take undue advantage of these institutions apart from minting money.

Suggesting further, he says bank accounts of those running these homes should be under supervision of "appropriate authority" and there has to be check on how many special children are enrolled in these institutions and what sort of infrastructure it is equipped with. Accountability, he believes, is key to regulate smooth functioning of homes.

A senior professor in University of Kashmir, wishing anonymity says, "As such there is no Act particularly pertaining to special children but under Societies Registration Act, you can register society in the form of an NGO, which is subsequently financed by the government."

After fulfilling certain criteria, says the professor, other things have to be privately taken care of simply because it is a private entity adding, definitely there are areas where there is need for a separate Act.

A high-rank official in the Directorate of Social Welfare again on condition of anonymity agrees that there is no Act to regulate functioning of special homes in Valley. "We are not supposed to deal with it," he says adding, "NGOs come to us for grant-in-aid. In case they fulfill required formalities, recommendations are forwarded to government," says the official.

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