In Kerala, today, the welfare of children is everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere because the state, almost drunk on the global discourse of child rights, projects itself as the ultimate protector of child rights. Nowhere, because none of this seems to have made even a jot of difference to the condition of children, who continue to dominate the mainstream discourses of violence and violation.
Perhaps we need to view this strange situation in the light of history. The proportion of children in Kerala’s population is now falling: from 42.6 (1961) to 23.4 (2011). According to the 2017 Kerala Migration Survey, 85.6 per cent of Keralite families have no children aged below four. The shift of children from the workforce to schools had made children relatively “expensive”.
Other significant social shifts included: the undisputed dominance of the nuclear family-form, women’s unprecedented entry into higher education, increasing childcare burdens on women in the wake of neoliberal social policy, and aspirations to upward mobility through children in families cutting across class, caste, and community lines. Educating children for global job markets has become perhaps the top parenting priority. This is also the time when the highly individualizing and Eurocentric discourse of child rights arrived, just when the local state was changing from a welfare-oriented-developmentalist state to a neoliberalized-governance-oriented one, driven by the ideology of self-help. The community itself was now understood as a collection of individual families.
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It was already evident that the global discourse on child rights did not always fit the bill. Clearly, in 20th century Kerala, schooling and children in productive labour and gainful work were not always in opposition to each other, nor where such children totally disempowered, as the researcher Olga Niewenhuys, who did study children here between 1970s-1990s, argued forcefully. However, in popular Malayalam press of 1990s, even indigent communities in which teenagers worked for family survival received universal condemnation. For instance, in news reports of teenage girls of Kerala’s impoverished fisher communities working in prawn-curing factories in faraway places. Though research revealed that this was their choice which they had to convince their elders about, this was viewed as child trafficking. And at the end of the 1990s and after, sensationalised media reports of child sex-rackets reinforced a strongly protectionist interpretation of child rights in which the young victim inevitably figured either as the pleasure-seeking strumpet or an innocent/foolish victim. Both seemed to invite the state’s corrective measures.
These changes seem to have brought into being two regimes of childhood. The first is the ‘aspirational regime’ common among the middle and upper classes. In this, the child is a resource that parents seek to mould into forms that bring prestige and upward mobility to their families. The second is that of child governance, through the government’s institutional network of child rights governance. It exemplifies the contradictions of the global child rights discourse – it affirms the child’s inalienable humanity, but in practice often pays just lip-service to their voices and agency. It mostly targets the children of the poor and the lower-middle class. If the first one is shaped by parental authority, the second is shaped by the paternal authority of the neoliberalized state. But both share an understanding of the child as mouldable material for parents in the interest of family upward mobility.
Naturally, ‘failed children’ are a constant concern in public discourse. In the middle-class aspirational regime, tight adult control on what may count as agency is evident: enthusiasm for a high-flying career is conceded as agential, while choosing a partner or wanting to have sex would be a sure sign of ‘failure’. Adults maintain this dividing line with a host of practices — controlling exclusively the boundary between adulthood and childhood, or letting children talk while setting the terms of the conversation. And when the middle-class child ‘fails’, the blame is often put on parental ‘overprotection’ and ‘overindulgence’. The response has been the effort to ‘immunize’ children and fortify their agential capacities. The ‘failures’ of the oppressed-caste-working class teenager are immediately attributed to ‘distorted agency’, to under-parenting, to individual parents or families. That is, the structural inadequacies and constraints on such parents go unaddressed, even unnoticed. Poignantly enough, violence against children in homes seems rampant. A study based on nearly 7,000 samples in a city in Kerala revealed that the one-year prevalence of abuse of any form was nearly 90 per cent.
We must read this report on ‘Child suicides in Kerala’, commissioned by the Kerala government in 2020 placing it in this context. A poorly researched document, it is clueless of the complexity or historicity of the phenomenon of interest. The immediate trigger seems to have been media controversies about underprivileged children suffering in the shift to online education in the wake of the pandemic. Whether the report is about child suicides per se or if they are a proxy for child distress under pandemic conditions is not really clear. If it is the latter, perhaps suicide attempts might have been the better proxy, but collecting data then would need rigorous research. This is very much the regime of neoliberal child-governance speaking; the blame is largely placed on families which apparently now seem to burden the state with poor childcare. It uses discriminatory terminology – ‘broken families’ – and worse, blames the ‘broken family’ even when the evidence presented seems to contradict this. The report’s recommendations seem blind to actually-existing teacher-student power relations in school pedagogy here. The sole useful insight it provides is that the (limited) data goes against the common-sense about stressed childhoods.
I can only repeat to these report-writers what the researcher Claudia Aradau wrote about the evocation of human rights in another context in which the powerless remain silent while the powerful jabber unendingly of them: “… if human rights have become the rights of those who are too weak or too oppressed to actualize and enact them, they are not “their” rights. They are deprived of political agency; the only rights are our rights to practice pity and humanitarian interventions…”
(Dr Devika J is a Malayali historian, feminist, social critic, and academician from Kerala, currently a professor and researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram)
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