This week, the Government invited comments from the public on whether India should accede to the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. 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 in several 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 recognise 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 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 focused on the needs of children, decontextualised 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.
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 social policies and culture of North America and Western Europe. The understanding of child rights moved away from the culturally nested notion of welfare, to a global norm of how children and families should live. Childhood was divorced from its immediate contexts. Diversity and pluralism in child-raising were seen as undermining the rights of children.
In the Western 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. When such an ideology is “exported” as the best way of bringing up children, it results in unprecedented and unfavourable outcomes.
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.
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.
The ideology on which modern child protection is based is not a very old one, even in 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 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.
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.
Pitching children against the very system that has protected them for centuries leaves them more vulnerable than before on account of displacement and distancing.
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 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 entirely.
Dr Nandita Chaudhary is a Cultural Psychologist and Child Development expert who has worked in the University of Delhi for more than three decades, teaching about and researching issues related to children and family life in India; she has authored several academic and popular publications on these issues