Orphans of Conflict: Forgotten by Society and the State

Orphans of Conflict: Forgotten by Society and the State

Do we need to cut down on the number of orphanages to the minimum possible and ultimately aim to close them all?

Kashmir valley had just one orphanage in 1986, now there are more than 700.  

An estimate by a UK based charity Save the Children; Kashmir valley has 215,000 orphans out of which more than 37% have lost one or both parents to the prevailing conflict. More than 15% of these children live in orphanages. Before 1990 most orphans were rehabilitated within extended families and adopted by relatives without any financial help from the State.  

Due to the ongoing conflict, the number of orphans increased exponentially and families struggled to take care. Some had no extended families, some families were too poor to look after their relative’s children and others worried about their safety at home.  The traditional role of society towards orphans started changing and various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) took over the role of extended families and homes got substituted by orphanages. Most of the orphanages are run by charities, NGOs and some by the State.  Reportedly most of these orphanages are not registered.  Let’s not forget though, 85% of these orphans are living within community without any help from the State.  

In orphanages, usual focus is on providing physical rehabilitation like food, clothing, and safe shelter but hardly any emphasis on the psychological wellbeing and over all personality development. There is no evidence that orphanages are helpful in the long run and are said to have negative influence. Institutionalised children have poor psychosocial development due to insufficient emotional stimulation. It has been proven beyond doubt that orphanages are an awful place to live in and most developed countries have shut them down during the early parts of last century. These children become ‘Institutionalised’ and are not able to blend in or perform in the society to their potential.  They are always reminded of being orphans, dependent and somehow not equal. They are not able to grieve and come to terms with their loss.  Often they are deprived of the normal childhood as they are expected to be mindful of the local rules twenty four seven. They are mostly devoid of any personal choice and have to do what is being told. This gives them a sense of rejection, worthlessness, low self-esteem leading to various emotional problems. Our own studies have revealed that more than 40% of the children living in orphanages suffer from various psychological problems with hardly any access to help. Having been victims and witnesses of severe trauma, Kashmiri orphans are at increased risk of psychological problems.

I am no way trying to criticise the good work these NGOs are doing or have done over these difficult times. It is fair to say that if these orphanages had not come to rescue, these children may have become victims of hunger, violence, exploitation and what not.  Most of these charities are working in good faith and have done a commendable job. At times, there have been concerns about poor living conditions due to overcrowding, lack of entertainment, regimental lifestyle, poor diet and access to education and health. Various forms of abuse do occur with institutionalised children and there are hardly any checks.  It is also alleged that some people are misusing the name of orphanages to keep their own businesses going. A meagre sum of 50 rupees a day per child is provided for the State run orphanages. 

These poor children have been neglected by society and condemned by the state.  Organising the longest Iftar party on the shores of Dal Lake for promoting tourism by using orphans as bait for sponsors is not exactly caring. Breaking fast with them during Ramadhan by police officers and posting pictures on social media does not heal their wounds. Let the cameras not focus on them with a judgmental eye, reminding them of their underprivileged status and horrible past. Do we have any right to cash in on their helplessness?

The J&K Rehabilitation Council was created in 1996 with one of the objectives to look after any orphans who are product of the conflict. Although, it claims to provide physical, psychological and economic rehabilitation, but no one has heard of it on ground. 

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had recommended to the J&K government to draft a Child Policy and set up State Commission for Protection of Child Rights back in 2010. It had made several other recommendations to ensure their rights including that “The orphanages should function instead as boarding schools, the state government should do away with the nomenclature of ‘orphanages’ or ‘orphans’ which could be stigmatizing as well as incorrect in many cases”. 

The State Government had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2013 for implementation of Integrated Child Protection Scheme in the State.  But I doubt any proposal was submitted for the release of grants. After all, orphans don’t have money for paying bribes to bureaucrats, so why should they bother? 

Have we become used to the growing orphanage culture? Is institutionalising these poor children been normalised and actively promoted?  Or do we need to cut down on the number of these orphanages to the minimum possible and ultimately aim to close them all? 

It is a shame that there is no policy in the state for rehabilitation or safeguarding of these orphans and neither did the state government bother to act on any recommendations.  Are these children not the responsibility of the State? Where is the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights?

So what can we do? 

Foster parenting or fostering has been adopted worldwide, wherein any family can volunteer to raise orphan children with regular financial help from the state to cover up the costs. Background check of the family is done by trained social workers to assess suitability.  Subsequently regular checks are carried out to prevent any abuse or engagement in child labour. 

Most extended families who had to give up these children because of poverty would be happy to have them back if due financial assistance is provided. Also State can give an option of adoption for families who want to come forward after a due process. 

Is not the foster parenting way of our beloved Prophet PBUH?  Was not this our way before this conflict started?  If we are able to look after 85% of these orphans within families, we can look after the remaining 15% as well with some planning and help. 

It is criminal if they are left at the mercy of orphanages for ever.  Social welfare department needs to wake up and utilise all resources from central schemes and NGO’s. A special department or even a cell can be started in the social welfare department to collaborate with various NGOs, orphanages and civil society to come up with a joint working plan. That would entail educating masses, advertising benefits of fostering and adoption. It should be made easy for people so that they can come forward minimising the red tape.

 Same money currently spent to run these orphanages can be pooled from both State and NGOs and used to support the families who are willing to raise these children. The state could also act on recommendations of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and try to manage these places as boarding schools wherever possible. The State needs to come up with laws and checks to prevent any kind of abuse of these children either in orphanages or in community. 

If State continues to fail, the civil society would have to take charge of this serious matter.  

Civil society has a major role in rehabilitating these children and utilise resources for integrating them in the community than promoting orphanage culture. Civil society can take on various stake holders including the State, NGOs, charities, international bodies’ etcetera to start the process. Imams of the mosques can help spreading the message to promote the change. The schools have a bigger role to play making sure these children are attending regularly and their academic performance is at par or at least not declining for any reason.

To conclude the state government needs to own these orphans and work with other stakeholders to rehabilitate them in community.   They are there because of the choices made by State and not because of their free will. They deserve to live in community with dignity and not neglected, used or institutionalised.