Protecting Indian Childhood by Dr. Nandita Chaudhary, 25 September 2017

Cultural psychologist and child development expert, Dr Nandita Chaudhary, argues that blindly adopting child-related measures advocated by international agencies will sabotage the welfare of Indian children. In this paper, she makes the case for India to develop its own model of child welfare, that takes the due consideration of local ideologies, circumstances and ways of living of children and families across the country.

Dr Nandita Chaudhary taught in the University of Delhi for more than three decades. She has authored several academic and popular publications on issues related to children and family life in India.

A shorter version of this paper was published with the title ‘There’s nothing universal about child-protection laws’ by The Sunday Guardian on 24 September 2017, as part of its series, ‘Global Child Rights, and Wrongs’.

Part I

International Interventions in Matters Relating to Children

Why certain international interventions in child-related matters are problematic and how the battle-lines were drawn.

 The Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction

Last week, the Government invited comments from the public on whether India should accede to the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Hague Convention). This treaty would require us to forcibly deport children from their families to any foreign “person”, “institution” or “other body” claiming custodial rights to the child, without consideration, except on very restricted grounds, of whether this would be appropriate for the welfare, security or happiness of the child.

In response, there has been a volley of protests from the public, including parents who have lost their children in custodial disputes in America, and are denied even tourist visas to visit them. Opposition was also expressed by women and child rights advocates in India, who say that the Hague Convention ignores the needs of the child, and comes down heavily on abandoned or abused mothers fleeing to India from bad marriages in foreign countries.

In the last five years, we have repeatedly heard voices of protest in India against what is seen as victimisation and prejudice in the treatment of Indian children and parents by Western nations in the name of child rights.  In particular, spurious claims of abuse related to child care practices, ignoring cultural differences resulting in confiscation of children by child protection services has caused much resentment in India.

The battle lines on child welfare between East and West are drawn by the modern ideal of child protection and child rights, which are based on a culturally specific Western understanding of childhood as the only favourable way of bringing up children. This position fails to recognize global diversity and the rights of families and children to their own ways of bringing up children, that are deeply rooted in cultural history.

The controversy over the Hague Convention reminds us once again that one-rule-for-all measures dictated by Western governments simply don’t work in child and family matters. These measures, though favoured by agencies such as UNICEF, are contested in the West as well. There are a growing number of voices from the academia, legal and medical professions, and the public for reform in child protection agencies. If we are to have a truly compassionate and just global society for children, then international agencies which claim to represent the world’s people, must do a lot more to understand the ideologies, compunctions and lived experience of families and children in society.

How did children come to be the focus of attention of Western Governments? UNICEF was established as an emergency relief fund for orphans of the World Wars. Over the years, more and more attention was focussed on the needs of children, decontextualized from their surroundings or families. This approach was understandable for child orphans and refugees of war, but rather ill-fitted to children living in normal situations.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

In the year 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted, bringing a direct focus on the children of the world as in need of protection.

The Global South was particularly targeted by early childhood programmes that were based on the model of social policy and cultural ideologies of North America and Western Europe. Alongside, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation Development and The World Bank were pursuing policies of structural adjustments and neo-liberalism. Investing in childhood became an important component of these policies. The public involvement in Early Childhood Education and Care is a consequence of these initiatives.

The agenda of child protection and the promotion of children’s rights became somewhat distorted, since it moved away from the culturally nested notion of welfare, to a global norm of how children and families should live. A perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or in this instance, throwing the life-sustaining bathwater out with the baby! Childhood was divorced from its immediate contexts. Diversity and pluralism in child-raising was seen as undermining the rights of children.

Local meanings and global standards in the care of children

The care of its children is one the most treasured experiences of family life. The ideal of a loving, caring family is universal. But how love is expressed, what care means, and how children are taught about the ways of its people takes diverse expressions and meanings.

Research has provided sufficient evidence for the fact that most care practices are adaptive to ecological, economic, social and historic features of a community. What works in a specific place has evolved over generations of fine-tuning, and may not work in another context. It is thus accurate to say that the way children are brought up is a unique and valuable dimension of family life in each society, to which every child has a right.

By creating a code for global standards for the care of children, the United Nations (UN) initiated an important activity for its member countries, that of overseeing the care of its children. It gave them the right to evaluate child care practices, comment on them, intervene in family practices, and engineer change. When a State signs the CRC, a potential conflict emerges. What happens when the local constructions of childhood depart from the global (read UNICEF-favoured) ideas about children? However, the CRC, once ratified, is binding, since the Government basically agrees to promote the charter upon its citizens.

The CRC is the most widely and rapidly ratified treaty in the history of the UN. Evidently, the care and protection of its children is an important priority of every country. However, the extent to which these external standards would be imposed was not something that member countries debated at the time the CRC was initiated. The CRC has been accepted by 196 countries. Two notable exceptions are Somalia and the United States! So we have the irony of the United States of America, which is the seat of the UN head office, refusing to sign the CRC.

There is an important reason why the US Senate has not signed the Charter, and this relates to the fact that it is believed that signing an international treaty permits external entry into the sovereign domain of family life in America. In most recent news, the former President (Obama) had declared this to be an embarrassment to the country, to be clubbed with Somalia. Yet, the decision of the Senate protects the people of the country from being governed by an external authority. Thus, one of the solutions in recognising cultural sovereignty regarding childhood, is to reject the CRC. However, few countries have the power that the US has, or the status that Somalia enjoys, to stand outside of an international treaty of this nature.

Part II

Contradictions between Global Ideals and Local Realities for Children

The top-down push from international agencies to homogenise standards for children globally, diminishes the richness childhoods everywhere.

 Modern child labour laws and traditional family occupations

India ratified the CRC in the year 1992, agreeing to abide by its principles and directives, making an exception with regard to the prevention of Child Labour provisions to allow children to work in non-hazardous family occupations. This exception declared by India remains a matter of concern among international organisations. But why is there a concern about the rights of a child to participate in work within, and for, the welfare of the family, as long as it is not hazardous? The care of siblings, for instance, a common practice among Indian communities, is something that would be covered under such a blanket ban, since it counts as labour. It is said that such work interferes with school attendance. However, as a practice, the additional nurturance received from a sibling is highly valued, and need not necessarily interfere with schooling.

These are the sorts of controversies that need to be thrashed out before the uncritical adoption of any binding declarations like the CRC or the Hague Convention. We need more active debates from different stakeholders in order to reach a reasonable consensus between local cultures and universal standards, before the cultural experience of childhood is sabotaged.

Apart from the issue of children’s participation in family work, India accepts the CRC fully. However, we have not had many debates about the imposition of these standards upon our people. Perhaps the post-colonial, subaltern positioning of always welcoming the West as a saviour from whom we must learn better ways of living, is still thriving.

Stigmatisation of Impoverished Parents

We have been quite compliant to the policies and demands of international aid agencies, often compromising the privacy and dignity of family life for people who live with poverty, thereby perpetuating a double injustice upon them. Their economic status is so on account of structural, historical and economic factors, now we also tell them that they are poor parents because they are poor, and they raise their children badly! Where is the justice in this?

An example of this is the way we accepted without question the Early Childhood Education programmes. These were exported by the West as the most important strategy to save the world’s children. Demands were placed on families, especially those living in poverty, to bring their children out of the four walls of their homes and into State-sponsored Centres purporting to make their childhood better by repairing the alleged wrongs done by families, with poor levels of education and inferior standards of care, like food, conversation, play experiences and the like. Unfortunately, not much was demanded by way of proof when these allegations were being levelled, and we fell for it hook, line and sinker!

We are still reeling under the push for earlier and earlier schooling that was forced upon a culture where a child’s place in their homes was quite secure and cherished.

 In Judging the Quality of Childhoods, International Agencies Fail to Acknowledge the Efficacy and Success of Local Traditions of Child Nourishment, Learning and Socialisation

Like indigenous people in other parts of the world, Indian communities have lives in a close association with their ecologies, ranging between deserts, mountains, rivers and coastlines. Over generations, families have evolved traditions for adequate nourishment and health practices drawing from sustainable sources available to them in their own environment. Further, cultural practices and social life ensured a growing person with an identity within a familiar and cherished social group.

These traditions came under serious threat with the advent of the industrial revolution and the arrival of a capital economy that forced people to change their ways. Neem sticks or datuns were replaced by toothbrushes, local grains were replaced by cash crops, and Western medicine was touted as the solution to all the ailments that people were experiencing.

Without dismissing all the solutions that modernity provided to the people of the world, there is no denying that some significant consequences were ignored. These changes made inroads into the delicate ecological and cultural balance within which tribal, rural and small-town communities lived. Psychologically and socially, developing children were provided with a vision of a future that did not include the places and practices with which they were living. For many Indian youth, they lost where they came from and couldn’t (for obvious reasons) reach the places that they were being shown as ideal places and ways to live. These youth have been left stranded, alienated from their homes, and denied entry into the places they wanted to reach. School came to be seen as a sacred space where a child would be able to find the meaning of success, yet the failure of schools to include children’s local cultures contributed to this distancing fairly early in life. See a discussion of early childhood education in small towns in India here:

Part III

The Wages of Individualism

Are international child rights agencies gifting us with compassionate measures for children, or frog-marching us down a well-beaten path to the isolation and despair of children?  

In the UNICEF model for child protection, a child is seen as an individual in its own right, independent of the family and community. This ignores the place of a child as a member of a family and community. Western society today is governed by the ideology of individualism within which the needs and desires of the individual are given utmost priority.

The pathway to an autonomous, productive individual as an earning citizen in an occupation of his or her own choice is a clear objective in the vision of the CRC. But for many of the world’s people, living with, among and in cooperation with the community is valued as a goal. This is an important difference between the local and the global.

When an individualistic ideology is ‘exported’ as the best way of bringing up children, it results in unprecedented and unfavourable outcomes.

For instance, let us take the example of a child growing up in difficult circumstances, say poverty. In such a case, the recommendation that children must be removed from families for their own protection and care is a possible conclusion, one that has been dramatically demonstrated in the case of Shanti Bhavan that features in the Netflix documentary Daughters of Destiny. Is such an action justified? Is it necessary to remove the child from the family in order for progress to happen? Does this not also result in several unprecedented consequences for the child and family? When the larger family network is available for providing for a child’s best interests, removing children from their homes is not the best option under circumstances of poverty, abuse or exploitation; or for their progress and development.

We need to look for culturally sustainable solutions that work along with, rather than against the family network. Perhaps the outcomes will not be as dramatic as the ones shown in the documentary, but these will be solutions that are sustainable, and within the folds of family life. Institutional care should be an option only where there is no family, or a family is unable or unwilling to care for the child for whatever reason.

The ideology on which the CRC is based is not a very old one, even for the West. It is the result of children being seen as vulnerable subsequent to the modern attenuation of the extended family, and the Industrial Revolution. Increasingly, the shrinking family and social changes led to the heightened vulnerability of children.

This Western insecurity is now sought to be transferred onto the global policy for children. But in the Global South, the child is not so displaced from the community. Nor are the child and his parents so isolated. In our part of the world, most families still live in multiple generation households; temporarily, periodically or permanently. The involvement of others in children’s lives is part of the lived reality of Indian childhoods. It is integral to their care.

Distancing children from traditional ways of living, in an unthinking adoption of the CRC-UNICEF model for children will disrupt a family structure and relationships that have survived for millennia.

Pushing the agenda of individualism, directly (by promoting school disconnected from society); or indirectly (idealising the notion of pursuing one’s independent dreams) is likely to result in the very social changes that the West is presently finding hard to deal with. The breakdown of relationships, with children growing up in smaller and smaller families; the increasing numbers of single mothers, isolated and alone in their care of the young child, are outcomes that can be avoided by preventive measures through policy and planning to protect cultural heritage, not only of buildings and craft, but also of family life, language, relationships, dignity, and respect for large households, and multiple generation families.

In the African Charter on the Rights of the Child, [1] the cultural heritage of its children is clearly articulated as an important adaptation of the UN model for children. Given the robust tradition of child care we have in India, it is essential to develop our own version of the Rights of Children, that allows them the benefit of our local traditions.

The African Charter declared that a child is first and foremost a member of a community, with a right to cultural and historic traditions. This is an important articulation of an alternative to the notion of childhood advanced by the CRC. While maintaining the need to keep the child cared for and protected, it recognises and works towards a culturally rooted version of childhood. This is an important model for India, for which there is a great need, since we are very close to compromising the importance of and rights of families to bring up their children in their own ways.

Here are some extracts from the African Charter:

–         TAKING INTO CONSIDERATION the virtues of their cultural heritage, historical background and the values of the African civilization which should inspire and characterize their reflection on the concept of the rights and welfare of the child,

–         CONSIDERING that the promotion and protection of the rights and welfare of the child also implies the performance of duties on the part of everyone,

–         NOTING WITH CONCERN that the situation of most African children, remains critical due to the unique factors of their socio-economic, cultural, traditional and developmental circumstances, natural disasters, armed conflicts, exploitation and hunger, and on account of the child’s physical and mental immaturity he/she needs special safeguards and care,

–         RECOGNIZING that the child occupies a unique and privileged position in the African society and that for the full and harmonious development of his personality, the child should grow up in a family environment in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,

–         RECOGNIZING that the child, due to the needs of his physical and mental development requires particular care with regard to health, physical, mental, moral and social development and requires legal protection in conditions of freedom, dignity and security

 Part IV


India needs to develop its own model for child welfare, and not be steamrolled into adopting the UNICEF model of child protection.

From a detailed reading of these sources, it becomes evident that in the uncritical adoption of the CRC, and the free hand, and even elevated status, that is given to international aid agencies, the Indian Government has compromised the ability of its own people to do the best by their children.

It is not just a question of competing ideas of child-raising, but of an intelligent appreciation of the needs of children in the context of their actual circumstances. Indian child policies must consider our children and their specific situation here, and not act blindly on a model built on the experiences of children living far away, in a totally different context. By steamrolling India into adopting its model for children, UNICEF is preventing us from doing precisely what it claims to be doing, giving a voice to Indian children.

Moreover, we must take care not to undermine the freedom, dignity and sovereignty of our own people to follow their cultural traditions, rights that are protected by our Constitution. Every society has an inalienable right to its own culture, which includes historically rooted ways of living including religion, language, food, dress, music, art and other aspects of culture. With reference to childhood, this means that every community, even the poorest of the poor, has a right to bring up children in their own ways. The Indian Constitution protects these rights of people through the provision of justice, liberty and equality to the people of India, without fear or favour. However, in matters related to childhood and family life, we often forget these fundamental rights of people, especially when we are dealing with huge economic differences.

There is a great need to carefully examine the roles and objectives of international agencies in policy matters and the implementation of welfare to ensure that the dignity of indigenous people and their culture is protected, and their children retain their right to family life and community membership.

Pitching children against the very system that has protected them for centuries, leaves them more vulnerable than before on account of displacement and distancing. As Indians, we have a right to bring up children as Indians, and not some diluted version of Western childhood in the name of progress and national development. We have urgent needs in health, sanitation, provision of safe drinking water, education, nourishment and protection that are being ignored at the cost of investments in issues defined by an alien ideology. Instead of acceding to treaty after treaty, such as the CRC and Hague Convention based on alien and, for Indian children, unsuitable notions of child welfare, we need to wake up to the challenge of managing the welfare of our own children.