Effective child protection through UNICEF supported `village watchdog committees'
by Pallava Bagla
The smile on Sukanya’s face is back as she makes her way to school. She is grateful and thankful to the vigilant villagers who ensured that she did not drop out of school for good in her tsunami devastated village.
Kudukuppam village, Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu. July 2005 - Thirteen-year old Sukanya, who lost her parents well before the tsunami struck, was being looked after by her grandmother. On that fateful December 26, 2004 morning when the tsunami struck the east coast of India, it took away in its wake the only protective hand over Sukanya. Her grandmother was killed by the tsunami along with 126 others that died in this coastal village that had a population of about 2000. Sukanya was forced to drop out of school, but was still looked after by her relatives in the village. A vigilant group of villagers heard about her plight and then brought her back into the folds of institutionalized education. She is now a student of grade VI at the Parangipetai High School.
Child protection is a well entrenched concept in the state of Tamil Nadu. Almost three years ago the Department of Social Defence of the state had set up `village level watch dog committees.’ Over 12,000 such committees were set up all over the state except in the urban areas of Chennai. Like any other initiative that begins with good intentions, many of these were unable to meet the challenges that they were confronted with in the post tsunami period when the entire social fabric was under severe strain. “These committees were in dire need of support and training to make them effective tools in the first line of defence in child protection” says Mrs. Glory Gunaseeli, Superintendent of Government Observation Home for Children in Cudallore.
Realizing the importance of filling this vital gap, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) decided to suitably strengthen these village level watchdog committees. In May this year over 200 community members from fifty-four affected villages underwent a day long training program in child protection at Cudallore. Specialists from UNICEF lucidly explained to the community members on the need to be extra careful and responsible in the post-disaster scenario when child abuse might be on the upswing.
According to Mr. Saji Thomas, Project Officer (Child Protection), UNICEF,
Usually there are eight members in each such committee representing citizens from all walks of life. In the first phase, UNICEF will cover about 162 villages in three districts of Nagapattinam, Kanyakumari and Cudallore.
Back at Sukanya’s scenic coastal village of Kudukuppam the members of the village level watch dog committee now meet regularly under the giant tamarind tree in the school compound, discussing ways to curb this social evil. Sitting on straw mats with sand below and the open sky above is an assorted group of village elders that includes Mr. Nala Thambi, the village administrative officer and the convener of this body; Mr. V. Chandran, the panchayat president; Mr. R. Murugan, the village school teacher; Mrs. V.
There can be no better proof that these vigilant bodies are playing an important role in ensuring that the social fabric of the tsunami affected villages remains intact than the joyful face of Sukanya as she makes her way to the school.