Ill-treatment of Children: More, or Less of Government?

By TP Saran

During her intervention last week on the occasion of the launching of a DVD about the rights of children, Minister Sheila Bappoo rightly expressed indignation at the irresponsibility, if not sheer callousness, of parents who brought children into the world and dumped them into the shelters put up by government, and expected the latter to take care of their children.

Referring to the number of children subjected to abuse, she said that it had doubled from about 3000 in 2003 to about 6000 in 2010. And she echoed the sentiments of many others when she stated that she does not understand why there had been such an increase in the number of cases of child abuse. The worst thing is that apparently in most cases it was a close relative, including the father, who was the perpetrator of the crime.

From the mother who is prepared to sell her daughter’s child to the father who sexually abuses his 3-year old daughter – what then stops an uncle from taking advantage by luring the innocent child away? As happened last year, with an 8-year old being raped and then killed, and set on fire while she probably still showed signs of life. And the criminals will go seek a lawyer to defend them!

It is true that government has a mandate to provide for its citizens, especially those who are at increased risk(s) – but does this mean that parents and social, cultural and religious leaders/organizations should sit back and leave things to government? On the one hand, people complain that there is too much of government interference in social life; on the other, instead of asking for less government, they want it to intrude into more and more aspects of their personal lives. Unfortunately, government lacks the knowledge and expertise to handle such complex and sensitive matters, which require a fundamental shift in the attitude of people. Building shelters is like treating the effect of the disease, whereas what is required is to address the causes.

Here, it is social, cultural and religious leaders who should assume a greater role and responsibility. It will be recalled that when that 8-year child died at the cruel hands of her uncle, the main thrust in the media was that officers of the Child Development Unit had not done their job properly. But what about the parents then – wasn’t it primarily their duty to ensure the safety of their child? And, for that matter, the uncle himself ought to have had that sense of duty of protection towards his own niece, isn’t it? So now we come to the issue of ‘training’ of parents? By whom? Government?

Never, that’s not government’s role. In any case, people are cynical about government(s) – as someone remarked, ‘whoever wins (in an election) it is always the government that comes back to power.’ The respective heads of the different religious groups are failing in their duty to inculcate the proper human values in their flock, and are wrong to expect that it is government that should be doing what is in fact their job. It must be recalled that government heavily subsidizes religious bodies with grants. There never seems to be an audit report on the utilization of these grants, and it is perhaps not too late to do an audit trail so that taxpayers have a better indication of where these moneys go.

To our mind, the ‘training’ of parents should be one of the priority areas addressed by these religious leaders instead of their meddling in politics as they have a tendency to do, never missing a chance to give loud lessons in public on the morals of society. They are clearly failing in their vocation of teaching their followers how to lead their lives according to these same moral principles. Or are they embarrassed to do so because of guilt – since there have been a number of cases reported where their own behaviours have been suspect?

There are many problems that governments have to do and that they have failed to address with the urgency and in an integrated manner – such as water supply, mass transport, the looming energy crisis, land use and exploitation – because they form part of a complex system, meaning what happens in each one has an effect on the other, and that is why they must be considered together (‘integrated’). But certainly the regulation of family life at the individual level is neither the role, responsibility nor duty of government.

Let those who are shouting the loudest in civil society come forward with structures at the community and proximate society level to address the problem at its root – which is what is the meaning of the family, and how to ensure that the family remains the basic unit of social life. Unless they are prepared to do this instead of scapegoating the authorities every time, nothing is likely to change. 

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2011

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