SUCHITRA SHETH

India,

A dedicated children's rights activist, Suchitra Sheth is bringing major changes to Gujarat's state-run homes for children, turning them into vibrant and professional rehabilitation centers. Using art and culture with the children–and the arts of diplomacy and cooperation with government staff–she is reviving a new sense of responsibility and hope for Gujarat's forgotten youth.

This profile below was prepared when Suchitra Sheth was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.

INTRODUCTION

A dedicated children's rights activist, Suchitra Sheth is bringing major changes to Gujarat's state-run homes for children, turning them into vibrant and professional rehabilitation centers. Using art and culture with the children–and the arts of diplomacy and cooperation with government staff–she is reviving a new sense of responsibility and hope for Gujarat's forgotten youth.




THE NEW IDEA

Suchitra is bringing major changes to Gujarat's state-run homes for children. These special juvenile homes, which include orphanages and remand centers, have become like prisons: hostile, hopeless places intent on separating their inmates from society. Suchitra is changing how the state deals with the youth it cares for by introducing new attitudes, ideas, and activities throughout the system. She understands that systemic change requires new policies on the part of government, new commitment and behavior on the part of staff, a new sense of responsibility on the part of society at large and, most important, a renewed spirit of confidence and self-esteem on the part of children.

Suchitra is taking a new approach to these old institutions. Her innovation is to more widely distribute responsibility for Gujarat's children throughout society, including higher government, the legal system, civil society, and ordinary citizens. Thus she reduces institutions' burden while increasing participation by other actors–most notably the children themselves. Children's participation is at the heart of Suchitra's philosophy, for she believes that through more active education, counseling and public exposure, children under state care will be able to rejoin society better and more quickly. Suchitra believes that children under state care should be able to draw, paint, see puppet shows and films, and meet other children and adults. She says, "It is my strong conviction that when children from drastically different backgrounds meet in a non-competitive atmosphere they experience each other's lifestyles and forge bonds of friendship. Revolutionary things can happen. The world could become a different place."




THE PROBLEM

About thirty million poor Indian children do not attend school. Poverty, broken families and alcoholic parents drive many children into the streets, where they commit petty crimes. The rising number of street children, orphans, and other destitute, neglected, and delinquent children worries not only the government but the entire country. Children victims of harsh circumstances end up being pawns in a questionable child welfare system.

The Juvenile Justice Act categorizes children arrested for crime as delinquents and children who are vagrants, beggars, and runaways as neglected. The Act seeks to separate the two groups and promote humane and non-institutional services for them. In most states, however, state facilities violate this principle of separation. Frightened runaways, malnourished orphans, and tough young delinquents all live under one roof. Older children have difficulty adjusting to their loss of freedom and individuality; younger children crave family affection. Most of the girls are depressed; many are suicidal and bear permanent scars from neglect, abandonment, physical and sometimes sexual abuse.

State-run homes for orphans, runaways, and other children in trouble need major reform. For most children, the homes are like prisons, affording no contact with the outer world - not even family. There are no extra-curricular activities; education is limited to basic literacy; and children of different ages are lumped indiscriminately into the same classes. Teachers lack training and new teaching techniques. Outside, where children from some homes may attend nearby municipal schools, they are treated as pariahs. Overwhelmed staff face their own deprivation, a gradual desensitization wrought by bureaucracy. By passing the Juvenile Justice Act, India has sketched the legal framework for each state to evaluate and improve its services. But change depends on implementation, not legislation alone; legal intervention may fix basic material and bureaucratic weaknesses, but all the things normal children take for granted cannot be ensured by any legal ruling. The courts cannot rid the "government servant" syndrome of apathy, carelessness, and callousness either.

Suchitra is seizing opportunities created by the Act and its local guidelines, the Gujerat Rules. She has created a program of educational, social, and cultural activities designed to supply some of the important life skills that young charges of the state are missing. Through regular classes in painting, crafts, and singing children constantly meet new people, including Suchitra's volunteers. As a simple but innovative strategy Suchitra also draws on India's religious festivals to awaken children's artistic creativity and hone their social skills.

But her mission is not simply to serve the needs of neglected children, challenging through that goal is. Suchitra's programs are both an example and a platform from which to reform the way state homes are run, how staff are trained and managed, and how society deals with its "invisible" children. By training teachers and staff, running an awards program to recognize and reward staff creativity, recruiting volunteers to also get involved, and by securing the cooperation of high officials in the system, Suchitra is ensuring that her work amounts to more than a few isolated projects run by one concerned person. She has obtained permission to introduce her curriculum and start working with staff in all the thirty homes in Gujrat, and is beginning in Ahmedabad.

A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Suchitra got involved with the homes after the Gujerat High Court established a commission to investigate conditions in the homes in 1996. As a member, she helped achieve large-scale repairs and renovation, and prompted enquiries into sexual abuse and police brutality. Concerned by more systemic problems, in 1999 began her first Child Resource Center.




THE STRATEGY

Fourteen years ago India enacted laws to protect children according to UN standards, and each Indian state developed its own rules for implementation. The Gujarat Rules propose some good ideas– for example, there is provision for a craft teacher in each home -- but in light of government bureaucracy and lack of funds, the government needs an outside agency to realize these improvements. Hoping to broaden interaction between Gujarat's young charges and society at large, Suchitra is seizing opportunities that the Gujarat Rules create. Her Child Resource Center in Ahmedabad works with two local state homes and serves as a testing and demonstration ground from which to spread her ideas across Gujarat. Now she and her staff are replicating the Ahmedabad curriculum, recruiting volunteers, training staff, and collaborating with policy makers.

Suchitra's ultimate goal is to help children overcome their hardships and let them cope with the world independently. To this end she has created a program of extra-curricular activities and field trips designed to raise children's self esteem and help them express themselves. For example, she draws on India's religious festivals to awaken children's artistic creativity and hone their social skills. Children prepare for then observe a festival each month. Some are opportunities for children from different homes to meet, expanding the children's social world. This year at Rakshabandhan, a festival where sisters tie colorful threads, or rachis, around their brothers' wrists to wish them luck, girls from a Juvenile Home were taken to a Boys Home where they tied rakhis to the boys, exchanged sweets and mingled. Other major social events like Holi, Diwali, and Navratri have been observed within the limited resources of the Homes, and the government has already granted permission to make these regular celebrations in the future. These activities are educational for Suchitra as well. The more time she spends with the children, the more she learns about their problems, relationships, reservations, hopes, and abilities. This knowledge will inform future counseling efforts, which she knows is crucial to the children's rehabilitation. To further social rehabilitation, Suchitra plans more interaction among homes. Girls in an Ahmedabad home have started a newsletter that will be distributed to all thirty homes in Gujarat. An exchange tour is also being planned between a home in Ahmedabad and a home in Bhavnagar, which is a model of cleanliness, hygiene, and discipline. The Superintendent is highly committed and Suchitra plans to enlist her help in improving other homes. Participation by such powerful people is a step towards creating sustainable and vibrant programs all over the state, whether or not Suchitra is present.

Outside Ahmedabad, homes in Bhavnagar, Rajkot, and Surat are now using these ideas, and Suchitra hopes to develop a resource center in each district of Gujarat. The first meetings with the institutions in Bhavnagar took place in mid-June and programs are scheduled to start in August. Interest in these activities has been shown in Surat and Rajkot as well. She plans to introduce her curriculum and start working with staff in all thirty of Gujarat's state homes over the next two years. The Child Resource Centers can pool individual resources, building a common fund with donations of food, clothes, gifts, and money from wealthy families and charitable trusts. The Centers will also be a place where privileged and under-privileged children, who would otherwise be strangers, can meet and interact. The Ahmedabad center has books, musical instruments, and films that other homes can borrow. The Resource Centers will ultimately be financed locally and managed by citizens, individually, and in groups.

Suchitra is convinced that a meaningful and vibrant future for these children is the responsibility of both the State and civil society. Suchitra is creating a bank of resource people–college students, lay citizens, and professionals–to give their time and talent. Already they have been working with institutes such as the National Institute of Design, the Indian Institute of Management, and the Community Science Center in Ahmedabad. A college student has joined Suchitra as a paid staff member.

To overcome the resistance of state staff Suchitra must gain their confidence. "Shaking the bureaucracy without making them feel shaken is the miracle I need to work towards," she says. Suchitra recognizes that both her staff and state staff would benefit from training in counseling. A professor of social psychology at the Indian Institute of Management, a premiere management institute, has already volunteered to help. She believes that this relationship can make immeasurable contributions.

Suchitra has good connections to policy makers, those with the power to make change "from above." In 1996, on the basis of a Public Interest Litigation on the appalling conditions at Khanpur Observation Home in Ahmedabad, the Gujarat High Court set up an enquiry commission. Suchitra was appointed as a member of this Commission and she still serves in this influential role. Although the Director of the Ministry of Social Defense offered to let Suchitra run all homes in Ahmedabad, she resisted the temptation to bring change as an outsider, in favor of helping the many people already inside the system. She plans to use her authority to improve communication between staff and the Directorate and to introduce new incentive programs that recognize staff innovations.




THE PERSON

Suchitra and her younger brother were raised to stand up and speak out for their rights. Her father, who was a railway administrator, was transferred frequently, and this mobile lifestyle introduced Suchitra to different kinds of people and taught her to appreciate cultural differences. Her mother, a feminist who wrote for Socialist Health Review, brought up her children to take a principled stand in everything they do. Suchitra attended the National Institute of Design, earning her diploma in Visual Communication and specializing in Exhibition Design. Among the themes she explored as a student were the ways in which designers could have participated in India's Freedom Struggle, Gandhi's mass communication strategies, and the visual languages of non-literate peoples.

After graduation Suchitra set up an independent design practice. Her search for challenging social work landed her a job with the Centre for Health Education, Training, and Nutrition Awareness in Ahmedabad in 1988. In order to experience a wide range of situations, she started working freelance for development organizations. In 1990 Suchitra joined SETU, a non-profit organization working on education, to illustrate a book for adolescent girls, and has continued to work with SETU on human rights education.

This involvement in children's rights began her work with state remand homes. As a Commissioner she helped achieve large-scale repairs, electrification, enquiries into sexual abuse, and judicial enquiries into police brutality–but Suchitra was still concerned by more systemic problems. She saw that normal checks and balances were not working. She started working with staff and children to make small, tangible changes in daily life, and began integrating music, crafts, and festivals. In 1990 she found financial assistance from Child Relief and You to begin her first Child Resource Center in 1999. Suchitra teaches at her alma mater, the National Institute of Design, drawing from her classes student volunteers to help in the homes.