CHENNAI:When a person from the largely stigmatised Kuravar community was picked up by the police in Madurai two weeks back for alleged robbery, the effect was felt by his child. Lakshmi (name changed), his 13-year-old daughter, stopped going to school as a result of the snide remarks she faced.
With widespread caste discrimination and branding of communities, the effect on the rights of children can be seen in instances across the country — Dalit children being made to sweep classrooms and clean toilets at schools, eat separately and face neglect.
The constant branding by teachers and classmates as the ‘other’, besides affecting the psyche of the child has been shown to increase the number of dropouts and the cycle goes on — child labour, drug abuse, alcoholism and crime.
The issue of child rights is universal but the discrimination is more in India because of the socio-religious philosophy that facilitates discrimination on the basis of caste, believes social activist Vasanthi Devi, former chairperson, Institute for Human Rights Education.
“Dalit children have special needs and this is not accepted by most people. Children in schools face the same issues the adults of the caste face, ” said N Thayalan, director of Human Resource Development Foundation (HRDF).
Pallar, Paraiyar, and Arunthathiyar are the major Dalit groups in the State. A 2010 survey was conducted among 200 Arunthathiyar families, the group engaged in manual scavenging and considered lowest, the ‘Dalits among Dalits’. This survey conducted by the Arunthathiyar Human Rights Forum revealed that 24 per cent of children dropped out from schools, starting from Class 1 and reaching a maximum at Class 8. The top reason given by students for dropping out was slow learning followed by peer group influence, family incompetence, teachers’ attitude and a difficult syllabus.
While children may not completely comprehend the underlying factors behind this inferiority complex, around 20 per cent of the teachers quoted caste discrimination as a reason for dropouts, although the top reason was inadequate staff followed by poor parental care and economic factors.
Frequent migration by parents, the occupation of the parents as manual scavengers, and the disturbed environment at home increases the chance of dropping out.
“The maximum percentage of dropouts come from the SC/ST community. Children who go to school are at impressionable age and extra attention needs to be paid to counter their vulnerability,” says Shantha Sinha, Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and founder of the Andhra-based MV Foundation.
The majority of students in government schools are often from marginalised communities but the schools often have poor facilities where teachers are not sensitised to non-discrimination.
“The moment they step into the school, they feel the hostility. Teachers referring to them by caste names and treating them with contempt is common,” Vasanthi Devi says. A subtle difference in the dialect that these children use is often mocked by others. Schools with a majority of SC/ST students get branded as ‘rowdy’ schools with teachers who work there constantly looking for better jobs.
“Should Dalit children not be there in the heart of the city?” asks Virgil D’samy, director of Arunodhaya, a foundation working for street and working children.
The issues of post eviction dropouts and child labour are intertwined, she says. “Should the city only have glass buildings and house one section of society?”
State’s Measures to Protect Children
The State Government is trying to tackle the issues of children from backward communities through scholarships, Adi Dravidar schools and hostels, and provision of free study material.
There are 1397 Adi Dravidar schools and 1304 hostels in the State, with around 90 per cent of these being in rural areas.
Over 1,70,000 children study in the schools, and 10 more college hostels have been added this year.
“The department conducts the Manithaneya Vara Vizha event with community feasts and programmes to create awareness about untouchability,” said the official.
The post matric scheme covers college fees for all students who clear eligibility and 10 students from each block on the basis of merit are given scholarships for private schools.