MAHARUKH ADENWALLA

India,

Maharukh Adenwalla, a lawyer, has mounted a child rights campaign through individuals, organizations, and the judicial system. She is using case law to push legislation protecting children in distress, while educating the public on legal interventions that are available to children and current inadequacies of the law that must be addressed.

This profile below was prepared when Maharukh Adenwalla was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

INTRODUCTION

Maharukh Adenwalla, a lawyer, has mounted a child rights campaign through individuals, organizations, and the judicial system. She is using case law to push legislation protecting children in distress, while educating the public on legal interventions that are available to children and current inadequacies of the law that must be addressed.




THE NEW IDEA

India's effort to provide a legal framework that complies with U.N. conventions on child rights has been piecemeal at best, touching on some aspects, but ignoring many others. Public interest litigators have been able to use case law to create some pressures, but the laws have been neither institutionalized nor codified. Responding to what she sees as a critical need, Maharukh has mapped out and started on a path toward instituting a legal framework for comprehensive child rights. She is identifying gaps in current law and organizing the legal profession to undertake a long-term campaign toward filling them. Maharukh is also mounting a nationwide campaign to incorporate into Indian law the protection for child victims of sexual abuse.




THE PROBLEM

Sixteen years after the initial enactment of the Juvenile Justice Act, comprehensive legal protection is still not available for children in India. Although there have been initiatives toward implementing a U.N. compliant framework for child rights, they have been sporadic and insufficient. The citizen sector's attempts to fill the gaps also have failed. The changes India has made have not been institutionalized, and even when effective laws are in place, they are difficult to implement and enforce if grassroots organizations are not sensitized to them. The legal community and child rights supporters have made efforts to address the issue, resulting in isolated areas of improvement. However, none of their actions have resulted in comprehensive legislation.

In order to protect children's rights, it is necessary to enact comprehensive laws on child abuse and the prevention of cruelty to children. It is also necessary that governments be committed to providing genuine protection through implementation and enforcement of such laws.




THE STRATEGY

The first part of Maharukh's strategy is to fill the gaps in the Juvenile Justice Act. She will bring in a series of illustrative cases to set change in motion. Current gaps that she aims to fill include the verification of age limits for children produced in a magistrate's court; age limits for children accepted into remand homes; television-linked court rooms for victims who are minors; laws for children in conflict with the law; and substantial and procedural laws for child sexual abuse cases. Maharukh is also taking advantage of the 2000-2001 amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act that makes it possible to get bail easily for children in conflict with the law. During the first two years of implementation, child rights activists and lawyers can appeal for a further amendment if they feel that the law is not working out in its entirety within the existing framework. Maharukh is working to make sure that all grounds are covered within this two-year period so that problems are registered with the government and the judiciary.

To ensure that child rights organizations in India have the knowledge to use available legal remedies effectively, Maharukh is pursuing a few child victim cases as "test cases"–seeing them through to their legal end. She will help the organizations working with these children through several legal steps, including lodging a First Information Report, briefing the public prosecutor, filing an application to the court on behalf of the organization, and preparing the child to give a statement in court. This process will train concerned organizations on how to deal with future cases and create visibility for the issue, while also drawing attention to the perpetrator and making the community aware of the problem.

Maharukh is also pursuing cases of children in conflict with the law. Her aim is to stop children from entering court custody for petty crimes, ones often rooted in economic need. As children are granted bail, they can escape the criminalization that often takes place inside remand homes and juvenile jails. Additionally, Maharukh is laying down procedures for child rights organizations to follow in representing children in trouble. Maharukh wants to ensure that such organizations have access to legal support. In collaboration with a child rights organization, Maharukh has written a guidebook on legal interventions for children entitled Child Rights and Law. It is a comprehensive book outlining intervention guidelines and giving insight into the legal responsibilities of the various allied systems that come in contact with children.

The second major part of Maharukh's strategy is to help grassroots organizations build a strong body of case law using child sexual abuse cases from all over India that will support changes in the way the legal system handles such cases. She is setting precedents by bringing specific cases to the magistrate's court and fighting them through the high court. Maharukh feels that India's legal system needs to be revamped to incorporate specific laws on this issue adequately. Publicizing child abuse cases also helps to send a strong message to the community–that the law will be applied in all its force. By helping grassroots organizations file and fight cases at the lower courts, Maharukh is helping them understand that exercising legal muscle can lead to long-term legal remedies.

With the aid of public interest lawyers across the country, Maharukh has initiated the National Campaign on Law for Child Sexual Abuse. This group will help draft a new law and circulate it among child rights groups. Once the legal work is complete, Maharukh will take the draft to a standing committee within the parliament to gain support for the new law. In addition to a book she has written on Child Sexual Abuse and Law, Maharukh is working with other lawyers on a white paper on child sexual abuse that will serve as the starting point of her work countrywide.




THE PERSON

A lawyer by profession, Maharukh was born and raised in Bombay. After completing her legal studies and practicing law for six years, Maharukh took a break from law in 1993. It was the year of the Bombay riots, and Maharukh was deeply disturbed by what happened in the city. She joined the People's Human Rights Commission, making door-to-door visits in the community for the representative people's verdict. They completed a study on the causes of the riots before the corresponding government commission could be organized. Though their report was ignored, as it was unofficial, Maharukh 's experience taught her a great deal about how the government handles crisis situations.

She had a similar experience in September 1992, when she participated in a fact-finding team after the Latur earthquake. The team worked closely with the community and made several recommendations to the government. When she returned in 1993, she found that none of the recommendations had been translated into actual work. Maharukh filed petitions against the government that generated positive responses. The court ordered a mechanism to implement the recommendations in 70 villages, and it took out a suo moto contempt charge against the chief minister of Maharashtra. From these two experiences, she realized that though law may be inadequate, it has a major role to play during times of crisis.

In 1996 the death of a child at Bhiwandi Remand Home in Bombay alerted Maharukh to the lack of legal interventions for children in need of protection and children in conflict with the law. At the request of the child's parents, Maharukh filed a petition at the Bombay High Court that resulted in a detailed survey on remand homes across Maharashtra. The court appointed a committee to conduct the survey and Maharukh was appointed to the team. She visited observation homes, getting to know the children and the reasons why they were there. For the next six months, she sat on a juvenile board and observed legal interventions for children in trouble. Discovering that the child rights organizations representing these children had insufficient legal knowledge, Maharukh was inspired to devote herself to filling in the gap.