UNICEF misrepresented Indian families as being abusive when data suggested otherwise

UNICEF misrepresented Indian families as being abusive when data suggested otherwise

By SURANYA AIYAR | NEW DELHI | 21 October, 2015
The Ministry of Women and Child Development is being misled by a prejudiced report on child abuse in India, guided by UNICEF and Save the Children, an NGO. The report, which the ministry has accepted to serve as its statistical anchor, has given an exaggerated number of offenders within the family by clubbing neighbours and acquaintances as relatives. The report further floats a false notion that Indian parents indulge in a “conspiracy of silence” and are prone to cover up cases of child abuse. Suranya Aiyar exposes all this in “Save your child from UNICEF: A study of UNICEF’s biased and false claims about Indian parents”. Here is the seventh and concluding part of Aiyar’s report.

As stated in the Introduction, we have surveyed the Report in this paper as an example of the biased approach of UNICEF, Save the Children and other child rights NGOs towards Indian families, especially parents, and the falsity of their claims about pervasive abuse of children by Indian parents.


False and exaggerated claims about abuse in Indian families


We have shown you that the Report used the wrong statistical methods for the kinds of nation-wide claims it was seeking to make. We have shown you that the data gathered was unreliable, based on woefully unsystematic and arbitrary sampling.

Even accepting the Report’s highly suspect data at face value, we have shown how it does not support the Report’s claims of alarming levels of child abuse in Indian families.

Regarding physical abuse, we have shown you that, at best, the data shows a tendency among Indian parents, mostly mothers, to lightly slap their sons. We have shown you that the Report’s data shows that severe physical abuse by parents occurs in only a minority of cases. We have shown you that on the Report’s data, the majority of persons interviewed about how to discipline children preferred scolding and non-physical means.

We have shown you that the data reveals zero to negligible rates of parental sexual abuse. We have shown you that once you eliminate cases of sexual abuse by friends, class-mates, peers, strangers and non-family adults, the rates of sexual abuse shown in the data fall to a fraction of what has been claimed.

We have shown you that the Report uses overbroad definitions of abuse by including cases that are never understood to be “abuse”, such as watching pornographic pictures with a friend or class fellow, having strangers on buses rub their private parts against you, being physically or sexually abused by a stranger, neighbour, faint acquaintance or other person not in a position of trust or authority, being compared with another child by a parent, being told to help with household work such as dusting or minding a younger sibling, or being slapped by your parents. We have shown you that these overbroad definitions of abuse have the effect of inflating the rates of physical and sexual abuse claimed in the Report.

None of the Report’s data even remotely suggests a crisis of child abuse in Indian families, yet the Report concludes with blatantly false statements, defied by its own reported data, such as “it has also very clearly emerged that the largest percentage of abusers are persons within the family or persons in position of trust and authority” ; “the majority of abuse cases take place within the family environment, the perpetrators being close family relatives”  and, most unjustified of all, “the results of the study suggest that somewhere parents have not lived upto ...expectations”.


Hostile and prejudiced view of Indian society


What the Report chooses to ignore when it looks at Indian parents and family life, is revealing of its limited understanding of what it really means by “child protection”. Is there not something to be said, from the point of view of the happiness and security of children, for the fact that Indians are still largely family-minded; that the culture still favours marriage as the foundation for raising children; and that despite rapid modernisation we have not adopted the highly atomised, materialistic and individualistic cultures of some Western societies?

How does this state of affairs in Indian society compare with, for instance, Scandinavian societies, where the overwhelming majority of children are born out of wedlock; with children having to accommodate, in their hearts and their homes, a stream of changing boyfriends and girlfriends of their birth parents? How does the state of affairs in India compare to the total material and spiritual isolation of second and third generation impoverished single mother families found in countries like the UK? Children of such families literally have no one to call their own, apart from their deeply vulnerable mothers.

When looking at Western child protection laws and policies, we must bear in mind that these were evolved as a response to a special vulnerability among Western children that was brought about in great part by the breakdown and rejection of the institution of the family in that part of the world.

In the context of what those societies have lost and are denying their children owing to the breakdown of family life there, and what we Indians continue to give to our children in our commitment and belief in family, UNICEF’s and Save the Children’s pre-occupation with slapping, scolding and giving the girl child household chores in India is laughable.

We, ordinary parents and families in India, have to insist on a sense of proportion among child rights ideologues when they condemn our child raising practices. We have to be more assertive about the value of what we give to our children, even while we keep our minds open to change, where appropriate.


Child protection measures do not have to rest on an ideological hostility to families


We can agree to bring in measures against child abuse and exploitation, but we must not concede the anti-family ideology of UNICEF and Save the Children.

As we have argued in Parts III and IV of this paper, the alleged concerns of the Report – responding to sexual and physical abuse of children – could have been dealt with adequately, and better, by making the case for amendments to existing laws, or introducing new laws to deal with genuine cases of crimes against children.

There have always been laws in India against sexual interference with a minor (such as the laws on statutory rape) and children are not excluded from the purview of laws dealing with physical injury and other malicious assaults. Contrary to what the Report claims, it has never been the case that Indian laws have left children unprotected from their purview.

If there was a need for improving the existing laws, then a case may have been made for that. As stated, in Part IV of our paper, a strict law on sexual abuse of children was recently passed in India, which indicates the public’s concern and ready engagement with this issue, contrary to the claims of the Report that Indians want to shroud child abuse in a “conspiracy of silence”.

Instead of engaging with the real issue, which is how best to respond to the instance of child abuse, the Report states its aim was to “establish that child abuse exists”.  Why did the authors of the Report feel it necessary to establish something that no one denied?

We believe the only reason for the entire project was to portray Indian parents as being abusive, and as failing their children. The target of the Report was, in fact, not Indian children, but Indian parents.


Why would the Report deliberately misrepresent Indian families as abusive?


The question may be asked as to why the Report would deliberately misrepresent Indian families as being abusive when the data suggested otherwise. The answer to that lies in the biases evident in the Report. The opening line of the Report’s chapter on “Research Methodology” gives the game away by stating: “The study assumes that child abuse in India, as in other developing societies, is a phenomenon which is widespread...”. 

This bias against Indian and other developing societies is typical of the mindset of UNICEF, Save the Children and many child rights activists in India. They assume that people from third world countries and traditionally-minded people are innately abusive of children. Being “highly moralistic” is taken as an “indicator” of being an abusive parent. 

Naturally, such a prejudiced and hostile attitude to parents and families, especially towards impoverished parents, whose only joy and reason for living is often nothing but their children, would not find much support in India. Hence reports such as the one under discussion that try to present ordinary parenting situations as ones of gross abuse.

As discussed in Part I of our paper, the whole approach of child rights as articulated by UNICEF-Save the Children is to enable the Government to supersede parents and take over the power of making decisions about children because parents are seen, in the words of the Report, to look upon children as “their property” to be treated “as they like”.  In addition, poor parents are seen as not having the wherewithal to make the right decisions for their children. “Economic stress” is listed in the Report as an “indicator” of parental and familial abuse.  In the Report’s chapter on emotional abuse, matters that could be influenced by economic hardship, such as distribution of food among siblings, or relying on daughters to help with housework, is labelled as “abuse” and “neglect”.

Even the choice of the evidence group “Children in Family Environment, Not Going To School”, which was primarily used to study patterns of child abuse by family members, demonstrates the bias of the Report that poor families, and more particularly poor parents, abuse their children. Well off, westernised families in India are not likely to have children that do not go to school.

In another example of its classist bias, the lower rate of physical abuse reported by young adults reflecting on their childhood, than by the child respondents, is attributed to the fact that the young adults surveyed were of “better” backgrounds than the child respondents.  As discussed in Part V of this paper, the questions asked of respondents relating to so-called “emotional abuse” in the family also indicate a bias against impoverished families. To anyone acquainted with the pattern of life in poor or rural Indian homes, the questions on emotional abuse, indeed the entire approach to the issue of emotional abuse and girl child neglect, showed that the Report had only impoverished and socially backward families in mind when studying these so-called categories of “abuse” and “neglect”.


Stigmatising the poor

Is the Report making a case that poor families are inherently abusive? This is no idle speculation - there is a high correlation in Western countries having severe child protection regimes, between poverty and unfair accusations of child abuse.

Impoverished families, especially impoverished black families in the United States, and working class single mother families in the United Kingdom, claim they are more frequently targeted than better off families by overzealous child protection authorities.

Anti-CPS (“Child Protection Services”) and Anti-SS (“Social Services”) websites and community groups have mushroomed in the US, UK and other developed countries, with most of their members being impoverished and socially disadvantaged people.

Their palpable resentment and fear of social workers in the child protection system should lead us in India to question whether the Western approach to child protection, as advocated by UNICEF, Save the Children and the Report, actually benefits or compounds the problems of impoverished children.


Government policing of ordinary family life


The scrutiny of ordinary family life by the Government in the Report is also disturbing. The Report’s inquiries into slapping by mothers, and sibling comparison by parents, show that unbeknown to the millions of families and children in India, the Government, in the name of child welfare, is entering upon areas of everyday, personal life that have never previously been understood to be in the domain of governmental scrutiny.

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (“NCPCR”), a body constituted at the recommendation of UNICEF and allied parties, openly states that its agenda is to intervene in families and communities. Its website states: “In order to touch every child, [NCPCR] seeks a deeper penetration to communities and households and expects that the ground experiences gathered at the field are taken into consideration by all the authorities at the higher level [emphasis added].”

If the so-called “ground experiences” are going to be gathered from the field in the biased and unscientific manner of the Report, then we have a taste of what to expect from the NCPCR. Since the inception of the NCPCR, UNICEF, or one or other like-minded NGO has sat in on virtually every meeting of the NCPCR, and been involved in virtually every report and recommendation issued by this body.

Bear in mind that the NCPCR was set up by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to implement the agenda of the so-called “rights based” approach to child welfare with the active instigation of UNICEF. As stated in Part I of this paper, in the world of child rights, “child protection” is a term of art, a technical term for a certain type of governmental machinery empowered to supersede parents and take decisions and actions about children in the name of “child rights”. So the assault on the family in the name of rights-based child protection has begun in India.

We wish to emphasise that we are not making a simplistic claim here about the private sphere being off limits to discussion. Nor are we claiming that families should be above questioning because of “patriarchal” notions about the sacredness of family life, or any other reason.

People have strong ideas about raising children and gender discrimination; and questioning of family dynamics in this context is legitimate. But this is something for us to discuss, advocate and campaign about in society. There is no call for bringing in the Government, and its policing apparatus, on these issues.

The authors of the Report are well aware of this, which is why they brought gender politics and family dynamics under the heads of “abuse” and “neglect”. Once you accept that something is abusive or neglectful, then it is hard for anyone to object about using the Government to address it.

Not only is this an unfair attempt to gain the upper hand in a debate over a cultural issue, it will also not be effective. The law and police are blunt instruments. They are not the proper tools for unpicking the complex and finely balanced things - personalities, attitudes, fears and aspirations - that make up family dynamics.

Moreover, laws do not change attitudes. All that will be achieved is the criminalisation of family life.

UNICEF, Save the Children and local Indian NGOs supporting their line on child rights, first have to convince people on the ground of their philosophy. And they have to do so in a transparent manner, engaging educated people like us who hold the opposing view, and not just bamboozling impoverished, socially backward families into accepting their agenda offered in the guise of charity and welfare measures.


Playing politics through children; manipulating their responses


What is particularly distasteful about the Report is the manner in which the child respondents were surveyed to unwittingly incriminate their parents for acts and attitudes (such as slapping, scolding, disciplining and help with household chores) that are not immoral; that neither the children surveyed, nor their parents, nor the public at large, perceives as abuse; and that were not intended with any malice by parents towards their children.

Not only were children duped into unknowingly condemning their own parents, no provision seems to have been made, when processing their responses, to account for the limitations inherent in their still developing capacities of comprehension and articulation.

In this respect, the Report abysmally fails to uphold its own stated commitment of placing the child at the centre of child welfare policy. The entire Report was an exercise in placing the authors’ prejudiced and debatable child protection ideology at the centre of child welfare policy through covert, motivated and fraudulent research practices, not to mention the pervasively careless and shoddy statistical analysis underlying all of its claims.

The exaggeration and misrepresentation of the responses of the children surveyed, to give a false impression of pervasive abuse of children by Indian families, is a sorry example of the UNICEF, Save the Children and its supporting Indian NGOs playing politics through children. That, if anything, is abuse. Abuse of trust, and abuse of innocence.


Hostility to boys and mother-blaming


The hostility towards young boys in the Report; the failure of its authors to take note of the pattern that emerged in their own data of more boys than girls being physically and sexually abused; and the stigmatisation of mothers as “abusive” and “neglectful” for ordinary acts like slapping a child, being reticent about talking of sexual matters, and seeking the help of daughters in minor household chores, shows a perverse and irrational attitude towards women and little boys.

If this is truly the attitude of the Ministry of Women and Child Development towards Indian mothers and boys, then steps must be taken by ordinary citizens to force the Ministry to explain itself. In particular, mothers must join forces to ensure that they are not subjected to overzealous and biased policing by the Government over the manner in which they choose to raise their children. 


Child protection is an industry, not just an ideology


The negative portrayal of Indian families, and of family life in general, is not just a matter of ideological belief, but also part of the economy of child rights that has been fostered by UNICEF and Save the Children all over the world. They fund local child rights groups, they design public policy courses for child welfare, they fund government projects for child welfare, and they advise philanthropists and businesses wishing to contribute to child welfare.

So at each step of the way, whether you are teaching or studying child welfare; forging a career in the world of child rights; a public servant working in child welfare; or a philanthropist, you are presented with the UNICEF-Save the Children version of anti-family child welfare policies and their exaggerated claims of child abuse.

The Report itself testifies to how UNICEF-Save the Children set up a self-perpetuating cycle of highly partisan child protection ideologues to devise, teach, advocate and implement child related public policy measures. In its concluding chapter, the Report recommends so-called “capacity building” for the formulation of “a new policy, legislation, scheme...[by] the creation of a cadre of trained personnel, sensitized to child rights and protection of children. In order to create this cadre, in the first instance, schools of social work and universities should offer specialized courses on child rights, protection and counselling. Further, child rights and protection issues should be integrated into the curricula of administrative institutes, police training academies, law colleges, medical colleges, teacher training schools etc. So that the professionals passing out of these institutions have both the sensitivity and the knowledge to deal with these issues.” 

Here you have in clear language the blueprint for implementing the version of child protection favoured by UNICEF, Save the Children and allied NGOs. Trained exclusively in their child protection ideology, and without any significant counter discourse or questioning of the factual basis of its claims, you create an environment where almost every professional coming in contact with children, parents and the child protection system is biased in favour of the system and against the parents.

The names of the government servants, NGOs and child rights activists who participated in the Report are listed there itself. If you follow the work of any one of them, you will see that most of them are adept at mouthing the UNICEF-Save the Children line on child rights: it gets their names into international reports of the UNICEF, they are admiringly quoted as beacons of light in an otherwise anti-child society, they retire from government to plum posts in corporate sponsored charitable foundations, and so on. So advocating this version of child rights is not even just a matter of ideological narrow-mindedness, but also one of career advancement.

Each time a case of foreign child protection authorities taking children of Indian families abroad into foster care has been reported in the media, Save the Children’s India desk has made it a point to come on national television to support the removal of the children, and advocate for a similar system in India. We have been closely following such cases, and seen that in each case either the parents are winning the cases against them abroad, or analysis of the case documents shows the allegations to be completely unfair, biased, and often racist. In each case the forced confiscation of the children into foster care has been found to be nothing but a totally unnecessary and traumatic experience for the children.

Save the Children has sided against Indian families abroad without making any attempt to contact the affected parents or children, or ascertain the facts of the case. Their partisanship in the matter is abundantly clear, and it is they, UNICEF, Save the Children and allied child rights NGOs who are, at the moment, the chief public interlocutors with the Indian Government on child-related policy.


The dangers of Western-style child protection


The agenda of UNICEF, Save the Children and other child rights NGOs in India is to establish a Western-style regime of child protection in this country. As stated in Part I of this paper, in the UNICEF-Save the Children vision of child rights, the issue of child welfare is set up as a question of legal and human rights that the child can claim directly from the Government, and the institution of child protection authorities with the power to supersede the family in taking decisions about children is justified as the necessary machinery for giving effect to these child rights. In its Conclusions and Recommendations, the Report says that “there is a clear and established need for a separate National Child Protection Policy. In addition, every state should set up a State Commission for the Protection of Rights of the Child and formulate Plans of Action for Child Protection at the district and state levels.”  The Report also asks development of “standard protocols on child protection mechanisms at the district, block and village levels” to “build a protective environment for children in the country”. 

The language and view point of child protection is thus already an integral part of Indian child welfare policies.

Severe child protection regimes that allow child protection officials to confiscate children from their parents can be found most Western countries, including the United States of America and the United Kingdom. In our opinion, child protection in these countries has been an unmitigated and cruel disaster. We hold this view based on our direct experience of Indian families with child protection services in Norway, the UK, USA and Ireland.

Ever since the dramatic case in 2011 of a Bengali family in Norway having their children forcibly taken into foster care by Norwegian child protection authorities,  we have been working with Indian families similarly threatened with child confiscation abroad. We have also been closely studying the rules, procedures, philosophy and judicial decisions of child protection officials and family courts in this field.

We have observed in Western child protection regimes, a systemic preference for removing children from families, rather than enabling families to provide better for their children; findings of parental abuse or neglect on woefully inadequate evidence, including  hearsay, conjectures and speculations, that would be inadmissible in other types of legal proceedings; rubber-stamping by courts and lay tribunals of the findings of care workers who function for all practical purposes as adversaries of the parents in care proceedings; bullying and intimidation by child protection officials acting under cover of their powers of child confiscation; parents being blamed for developmental and other disorders in their children; the misinterpretation of medical evidence, or the application of medical theories that are vigorously contested within the medical community, in findings of abuse, neglect or the like against parents; parents with mild mental disabilities such as learning disorders being denied the right to raise their children; and poor parents and parents belonging to racial minorities or socially disadvantaged classes being targeted by overzealous and culturally biased child protection officers.

In countries such as the UK, the role of child protection agencies in preventing child abuse has taken the form of social workers being empowered to remove children from parents, even when they are thriving with their parents and there is no allegation of actual harm, based on assessments of risk of future harm. Assessments of risk of future harm are made based on so-called indicators of parental incompetence such as having a minor learning disability, or being short tempered, or having a history of depression. Based on these so-called indicators of risk of future harm, social workers are actually empowered not just to remove children from families, but even to identify pregnant women and remove their babies to State custody within minutes of birth.

In this context, plans expressed in the Report for having a “Scheme on Child Protection” that would “identify vulnerable children and families” are worrisome. We have in the West a live example of how such schemes have unleashed a virtual pogrom against families, where almost anything a parent does or doesn’t do can land the family in a situation where the children face enforced confiscation by the State.

The “indicators of abuse” listed in the Report confirm every apprehension that we are looking at plans to implement a child protection regime in India that would catch innocent families in the net. Indicators of physical abuse as listed in the Report  include the child “seems frightened by parents”, “often late or absent from school”, “plays aggressively”, has “little respect for others”, and also its opposite: “overly compliant, withdrawn, gives in readily and allows others to do for him or her without protest”, “has difficulty getting along with others”, “[refusing] to undress for gym”, “[giving] inconsistent versions about occurrence of injuries” and “comes early to school, seems reluctant to go home afterward”. Indicators of parents being abusive include “economic stress”, “highly moralistic”, “easily upset, have a low tolerance for frustration” , “blames child for injuries”. As anyone can see, these are highly subjective assessments. Even if made correctly, they cannot reasonably be taken as establishing that the child is abused or that the parents are abusive.

In our opinion, the issues with Western-style child protection are not individual instances of a well-intentioned mechanism gone wrong. We believe these problems are built into the understanding of the child and family that underlies Western-style child protection. A hostile and suspicious approach to the family, which is fed by the general understanding that there is rampant and hidden “abuse” in families, particularly by parents.


UNICEF and Save the Children have begun to lay the foundations of an oppressive Western-style child protection regime in India


If the Report is anything to go by, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and hence the Government of India, has endorsed and adopted the UNICEF-Save the Children version of child rights. Although Western-style child protection has not yet been fully instituted in India, many steps have been taken to lay down the institutional infrastructure and legal provisions for it.

Lobbied by UNICEF and allied NGOs, Parliament amended India’s juvenile justice laws to provide for a network of child welfare committees (“CWCs”) empowered to intervene for children “in need of care and protection”. The legal definition for children “in need of care and protection” under the amended laws is quite loose. On our reading, CWCs have wide powers to intervene in cases of “slapping” or “girl child doing housework” under some of the heads of child “in need of care and protection” enumerated under the law.

As in the case of Western child protection bodies, although these CWCs are given wide powers of taking over the custody and guardianship of a child, their members are not required to have any legal or investigative expertise. They also operate away from the public eye under cover of secrecy laws that were meant, in the West, to protect the privacy of children, but have in fact served to give a free reign to incompetent, corrupt and misguided child protection officials. The head of the family courts in England, a senior judge,  has repeatedly expressed the need for full transparency in the British child protection system.

The manner in which our laws were amended to bring in secrecy provisions from Western models of child protection, without even any consideration of how they have caused systemic dysfunction there, shows how lax our Parliament and Government have been in properly evaluating and applying Western-style rules for child protection in India.  There seem to be only advocates for this version of child welfare, and very little questioning of it from responsible quarters in India.

Not only does this place us in danger of repeating the mistakes of Western-style child protection, it also hinders us in India from enlisting resources that exist here, which may not exist in the West, for the support and protection of children. A glaring example of this is the provision in our juvenile laws (included at the instigation of UNICEF and allied NGOs) for what is to be done with children found by CWCs to be “in need of care and protection.” The options listed are adoption, placement in a shelter (institutionalisation) and foster care. There is not even a mention of placement in the extended family. How did this happen in India, of all places, when the extended family is so much a part of our social fabric?


The need for ordinary citizens to organise against UNICEF and Save the Children in India


The answer lies not just in the biases of the UNICEF and other NGOs that have monopolised the conversation in India on child welfare, but also because no one really questions measures suggested in the name of child welfare. There is an assumption that activists and organisations devoted to the cause of children must be noble, and that their suggestions can only be good for society.

In our opinion this assumption is proving to be dangerous not just for families or parents, but also for children. Children placed under state protection have fared terribly in the West – most of them face a fate of total social isolation, unemployment and drug addiction. Many of the girls supposedly “protected” by the State, end up in prostitution. Most children in State care attain majority as school drop outs, and many proceed swiftly on a path that lands them in prison. There are alarming reports of the wide powers given to child protection officials to remove children from their families, being misused to funnel children into adoption rackets and seedy paedophile rings.

So we cannot afford to allow UNICEF, Save the Children and other NGOs to continue on the course they have set for Indian children and Indian families. This paper is our first step in building an informed critique of their approach to child rights and child protection.


Suranya Aiyar was a practising lawyer before opting to become a stay at home mother in 2010. Since 2012, she has been writing and critiquing Western-style child protection laws as advocated in India by UNICEF and Save the Children. On a pro bono basis she has given support and advice to Indian families facing confiscation of their children abroad by child protection authorities. She also writes and illustrates children’s books.


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