Far Braver Than Me

I met Salma while doing an assignment on identifying good practices across the rescue to the reintegration spectrum linked with countering cross border trafficking of children between West Bengal, India and Bangladesh and Nepal. This was under the Missing Child Alert project led by Plan India (for India) with a non government organisation Child in Need Institute (CINI)facilitating actions in West Bengal. A project partner in the state, Socio Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) had shared information about Salma and her younger sister Noorie. Noorie had been trafficked to Bangladesh earlier. She was brought back within a couple of months. An attempt had been made on Salma as well (this was possibly inter country trafficking). Both sisters had also participated in a workshop on creating comics that present key messages on countering child trafficking. Finally, Noorie couldn’t make it for the interview and Salma was there.

Salma appeared to be one of the calm and quiet ones.  A measured speaker. I began with some polite conversation. General remarks about her village, asking about her school and family. Then, I tried to ease into the main subject – her current circumstances, support received by her family from the local community, non government organisation and other stakeholders. I told Salma why I was meeting her – i.e. to learn from child survivors of trafficking about the kind of supports that were most effective for them, activities or strategies that we could recommend for other NGOs and development actors to adopt and feedback on the comics workshop.  I told her that, if she wished, her name would not appear in print.

There was now a pause in the conversation. Staff from the partner organisation jumped in to provide more information to the girl, to make her feel more comfortable. I had thought of all these lines that I would say. But these words just came out on their own – “I know that our conversation may remind you of painful experiences in the past. But we will not talk about that. We know that you want to look ahead, to build a good and secure future for yourself. We just need to know how you are doing now, who is helping you and what happened at that workshop and any suggestions that you have for improving such workshops.” Her eyes became misty. But her voice remained even – “You can ask me anything you want.”  

We talked about her present, how her younger sister was doing and their hopes for the future. She had enjoyed the comics workshop. He voice became more animated as she declared – “I have suffered. We (my family) have suffered and we know. People usually react after something happens. What good is that? All the children should know about these things. You should try and put these messages in our school and madrasa books.” She also spoke about a recent incident when she slapped one of a group of boys who were harassing her. Her maternal aunt had also been with her then. The two had merely been walking down a street.  The aunt too had hit one of the boys. I asked – “Weren’t you scared? What if the boys had hit back or they could so something later?”  The instant response – “How long can you live in fear? I will face whatever happens.”

It was humbling to meet her. I may be a lot of things. But I don’t think I am as brave as her.  

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What Happens to the Child After That?

The children who came to the drop in centre were being encouraged to participate in a play which would be staged on Independence Day. The staffs at the non government organisation (NGO) were demanding, cajoling, pleading and trying every trick in the book to get the children interested. Finally, a motley group of about eight-nine children agreed.

The older ones (all about 10 – 12 years) and the staffs started talking about the storyline. Ideas were strung together – a child with an alcoholic and abusive father, conditions worsening at home, child runs away for a better life, ends up a railway station, feels afraid and lost, is spotted by a didi (NGO staff) who tries to convince him to come to their drop in centre, initially the child resists but eventually agrees to go with the didi feeling hopeful again.

Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Well, I was a student social worker then and didn’t know that this was the de facto script for most NGO driven plays.

Anyways, parts were assigned and the acting began. Everybody was making up their lines on the spot and having a blast. A few small scuffles, over real or imaginary slights, broke out as well!

Finally, we were at the last scene. The child and the didi hold hands and walk out together. Everybody clapped. The actors got busy reviewing their performance in phrases that can’t be written here. The staffs just sat down to catch their breath. They were through the first rehearsal. Now, it would get easy.

And then, one of the smaller children (I think he was about six years old) spoke up. “What happens to the child after that?”

A Shiny Piece of Plastic

It was just a shiny, colourful piece of plastic. A small bit that had or was broken off from something else. I couldn’t even tell what that was! But for six year old Manu (not his real name), it was a prized possession. He held it out to me and waited expectantly for my reaction. I could tell he wanted me to be impressed. So, I acted impressed.

That shiny piece of plastic, a ball, two pairs of shorts and pants, a torn school bag, two-three notebooks and a few pencils of varying length – that was the sum total of Manu’s material possessions in the world. He took out these items, one by one, from his small locker and showed them to me. Months of attempted ‘rapport building’ had finally borne fruit. Manu had let me into his world.

He had been assigned to me as part of my case work assignment. I had never considered myself to be particularly good with kids. And here was one categorised as ‘sometimes moody’, ‘often violent’ and ‘needing medication’! I honestly had no idea what to do with him. I played with all the children at the shelter. I tried to talk to him, but was often rebuffed. So, I just hung out with the others. Talking, listening and mediating in fights when asked to.

Manu’s mother had handed her two children to the home herself (Manu had a younger 3 year old sister). She would wander from one railway station to another, sweeping and doing anything else that got her money. She was considered mentally unstable, shared the shelter staffs. There had been many occasions when she had left the children alone at the station and disappeared for days. Then, others started telling her that she could not take care of her children like this. Even now, she would appear suddenly after weeks or months to see the children.

There were other children in the shelter whose parents remained untraced or never bothered to come. Meanwhile, Manu struggled with life at the home and at school and with the uncertain presence of a mother that his younger sister had already forgotten.

After completing that year of fieldwork, I stopped going to the shelter. I was assigned another organisation for fieldwork and I became a part of another universe. But during that second year and even now, I sometimes find myself thinking about Manu and that shiny piece of plastic.

Can I Still Become A Father?

I used to visit a children’s home as a student social worker along with another batch mate. Two brothers caught our eye. The elder one was reserved, but with a heart warming smile. He was also fiercely protective of his younger and definitely more mischievous brother. The older, let’s call him Michael, was in Class VI. The younger (say – David) was in Class IV. It was only when we saw their case files that we realised the horrors that they had dealt with. They had seen their father kill their mother in a drunken fit. The two had escaped to a big city and found work at a tea stall. They were harassed by the owner. Sexual abuse was also suspected.

They had been in the home for a couple of years when we met them. By then, they had settled into a routine. Then, we found Michael behaving a little differently. He became more reserved, more moody. Was it just adolescence or something else? We were told to talk to him.

Gradually, he opened up. He had been rescued by a priest. This Father was an important role model for him. In fact, he wanted to grow up and become a Father himself. So what was the problem, we asked. Well, he liked a girl who was in Class V. He wanted to speak to her, be friends with her. It could even lead to something serious, he thought. But then, weren’t priests supposed to stay bachelors? So, if he started talking to her, could he, even then, become a priest later? We assured him that there was nothing wrong in talking to the girl, in being friends with her. He did not have to take a decision about priesthood right now. That could, and should, wait. He should see how he feels and what he wants when he is in Class X. That will help him take a decision. That shy, heart warming smile was back and we were grinning back at him.