September 10, 2012
September 10, 2012
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Sameer Ahmad, 14, sits and longingly stares toward the gate. He is still waiting for someone to come and take him home.
Ahmad was put into the Yateem Foundation, one Kashmir’s 17 orphanages, after his father passed away in 1994 and his mother remarried a few years later.
Sameer says his father was a member of an armed group killed in an encounter with security forces. When his mother remarried he was left with his grandfather who brought him here when he could not take make enough money to support the boy.
Sameer is certainly not alone.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, estimates that there are as many as 100,000 orphans in Kashmir today. Most are young boys who were abandoned after their fathers died in combat.
The state of Jammu & Kashmir has remained a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since Pakistan emerged. India and Pakistan have fought two official wars over Kashmir in 1947 and 1965, and an un-official conflict in 1999. Estimates indicate that as many as 100,000 people have died in twenty years of combat.
Dr. Rouf Mohi-ud-din Malik is the director of Koshish, a social group working with marginalized children. Malik says most of Kashmir’s 17 orphanages are located in or around Srinagar City, one of the capitals. “People request us to admit such children. They think children [will] get better education and other facilities here, but frankly speaking these homes are nothing more than shelters,” he says.
A.R. Hanjura, a prominent attorney and social activist, says orphanages are often a compelling option for families who live in the border region, which is notoriously insecure and often violent. “Sometimes people feel insecure particularly in border areas because of presence of security forces and armed groups. To keep their children away from that environment, they consider orphanages a viable option,” he says.
Before 1990 an unwanted child would be adopted by a relative or neighbor in accordance with religious and social practice. Consequently, the need for orphanage was minimal. In fact, before 1986, only one orphanage existed in all of Kashmir.
Despite the fact that there has been a boom in orphans seeking refuge in the local institutions, all of which operate as nongovernment organizations or NGOs, there is not a single law that exists in the state of Jammu and Kashmir that regulates the facilities or the care of the children.
Rouf, argues that those running orphanages in state aren’t legally licensed to do so, as there is no act to govern their functioning. “Unfortunately, no licensing exists for orphanages. Simply, they are registered under Societies Registration Act, 1961 under which simple registration certificates are obtained. But that never entitles people to run these institutions. No act is in place to govern functioning of these institutions and there is no legal authority as well.”
Absence of any law or pending act of government recently provoked a piece of public interest litigation that seeks to form a monitoring body to govern the state’s orphanages.
An official in Directorate of Social Welfare here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as long as any NGO completes the required formalities, they are allowed to operate. “We aren’t supposed to deal with it,” he says of orphanages.
Opinions as to who should monitor the orphanages and how are abundant here. Abdul Qayoom, a social activist in Srinagar City, says he questions whether or not the government should play a role in monitoring such institutions. He believes an independent regulatory body that would monitor activities and functioning of these institutions. “People from different fields and NGOs should constitute a body to monitor functioning of these homes,” he says.
Tanveer Ahmad, a volunteer, says he believes local police should monitor the institutions. “Accountability is a key to regulate smooth functioning of such institutions,” he says adding bank accounts from the orphanages should also be monitored.
An Orphanage Alternative
Like Sameer, Mohammad Ismail is also living in the Yateem Orphan Trust. “I would love to spend time with my mother and four sisters at home always but I can’t,” he says.
Save our Souls [SOS]-Srinagar is an autonomous organization working for welfare of orphans and children living in women-headed households across India. SOS sets up communal villages that serve widows, unmarried women and their children. To date, they have built 40 villages in Kahsmir and have become a strong alternative to orphanages. More than 80 children are currently living in the 8 village homes.
Naushad Raza, the village director of SOS-Srinagar says he believes a family is the best institution. “In a case of single parents, we try to keep family intact. We have family strengthening programs where financial assistance is provided to young widows,” he says. All SOS programs aim to reduce the number of children being sent to orphanages.
“How to [care for] these children is the question,” says Hanjura. “Orphanages are no solution, but they do play a vital role.” He adds that the community should embrace and support widows who become single mothers due to the ongoing conflict here.