How can homeless children access safe play and expression spaces in the time of a pandemic? How can they be supported so their access to these spaces remains over time?
The YUVA Urban Initiatives Dadar Railway CHILDLINE team has worked to address this challenge in the past few months with select communities in Dadar and Matunga, Mumbai. Here’s how their efforts have unfolded on-ground.
The team, operating from their jurisdiction of Dadar Railway Station, continued their work on-ground since June 2020 even as the pandemic raged on, as their work to rescue children from adverse circumstances and rehabilitate them is an emergency service. However, they realised soon that with long distance and local trains being restricted, they were unable to reach too many children in need. In the pre-pandemic time, the team on-average handled 50 cases per month — either of those who had run away from home, or were trafficked, forced into labour, and so on. Once the pandemic started, they were getting about 10–15 cases to handle formally monthly, although they were hearing about more child rights violation cases informally.
To reach out to more children in need, the Dadar CHILDLINE and Railway Children India team members decided to expand their outreach by visiting vulnerable communities located near the station. They did this while following all safety and social distancing norms. Team members soon found two homeless groups of families staying near the Dadar station, who were not receiving any government support. Most of the family members were engaged in the informal sector as domestic workers, cleaners of cars, waste recyclers and so on. The families lived in makeshift shelters, and the pandemic had made them extremely vulnerable.
The team provided the families with ration kits and essential items. They also collected socio-economic data of the community members and submitted this to Railway Children India so that the families could continue to be supported on their safety, sanitation and food requirements. The team also started visiting the communities regularly to better understand their needs.
With these ongoing visits a rapport built with the community children. The team started conducting small activities with them, to help them better communicate about the situation they were experiencing and to help them relax and destress. Over time, this led to interactions with three groups of children, with 15–20 children in each group, who participated in the activities on a regular basis.
A major challenge the team encountered, however, was the fact that since Dadar station is very crowded and many vendor stalls are located, it was difficult to find a safe and sustaining place for the children to congregate in. Thus the team members started thinking about this in more detail. They finally discovered that the space under Kavi Keshavsut Bridge at Dadar West, near the Dadar Police Station, may be a good space for these interactions. The team members approached the police for permission to use the space for children’s activities once a week. The police guided the team for the permission process from the Dadar Police Station and G/North MCGM Ward office. This was followed by a formal meeting with the Senior Police Inspector of Dadar Police Station. He was convinced about the necessity of allowing this, with all COVID-norms being followed. The G/North Maintenance Department also agreed to conduct the activities with children once or twice a week.
This successful local advocacy with the local MCGM Ward office and the police helped claim a small local space for children in a rightful manner. It has also helped the children access a space which they know they can safely return to, and one where they can freely express themselves. Currently, 15–20 children and 10 women of the community use this space.
The team faced many challenges early on to get the children to use this space. For instance, some parents were unsure about the children being taken to a nearby space to play. Homeless communities already face so many threats and hostility at a daily level, that the team took time to build their trust. Once they were comfortable, it was easier for the children to access the space.
One of the children using the space currently is Rakesh (name changed), a 12-year-old staying near Dadar station. He sells vegetables with his grandmother near the station. Due to the pandemic, Rakesh missed his school. When the CHILDLINE team started engaging with them, they encouraged him to attend the group activities. Rakesh started coming for the sessions, and gradually started showing more interest to return to his studies. Rakesh belongs to a Scheduled Caste community, where the children are often engaged in waste-recycling and vegetable and flower selling, and drop out of education early. The team hopes that the activities conducted help the children gain more awareness, knowledge and skills, that not only helps them learn more about COVID protection measures but also develops their personality, and helps families adopt better health and food habits. The team also remains in touch to support the family with essential items, whenever possible. In the last 2–3 months, a health camp was also conducted in Dadar and Matunga for the members.
About YUVA Urban Initiatives and the Childline Team
YUVA Urban Initiatives works with marginalised communities and groups in urban areas of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region to help them access their rights and lead dignified lives. The organisation’s partnership with CHILDLINE India Foundation, the nodal agency of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, encompasses the work on managing the CHILDLINE 1098 services in select areas within the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. CHILDLINE 1098 is an emergency helpline for children in distress, which has helped the team rescue and rehabilitate many children from adverse situations.
While the YUVA Urban Initiatives partnership on CHILDLINE since 2008 was focused on select areas within Mumbai, it expanded to the Dadar Central Railway Station since 2018 and to Navi Mumbai since 2020. Over the years, the team has attended to cases related to abuse, neglect, runaway children, trafficked children, and more.
Since the pandemic began in 2020, the Childline team has worked in a hybrid way (both on-ground and online) to best support children’s needs. While this has been challenging, the team has committed to addressing children’s needs in this new normal, by adapting a very ground-led approach to a model that remains responsive to the needs but is also mindful of COVID guidelines. Since the pandemic began, the team has helped vulnerable children in many ways, reuniting children and their parents (if they were stranded in different regions during the lockdown), helping arrange medical support for children in need and in shelter homes, and more. Team members are trained and facilitated to support children in need of care and protection while following COVID-19 safety norms. The helpdesk follows a robust guideline to ensure that the issues of children are well addressed and with sensitivity while safeguarding their information.