SRINAGAR, Nov 14: Jameela Bano, a tenth class student from the frontier district of Kupwara has been living with a Srinagar family from months now. Her elder sister was married at an early age by her father, a labourer, while her other sister is suffering from a mental illness.
For Bano life in urban household is much easy and ‘helpful to her studies’. “Our father is the only support to us. Back home, I would walk miles to collect water and wood from the forest after school. After coming here, I feel relieved from that extra burden,” Bano says.
“Even if I do cleaning here, they help me in making notes and treat me like a family member.”
In another house on the banks of Dal Lake, 10-year- old Mahjabeen from South Kashmir’s Anantnag district would hardly have two meals a day. “I used to eat rotten apples at home. Our father could not afford meals two times a day,” she mumbles softly.
An increasing number of urban families in Kashmir are turning to countryside to ‘adopt’ children as domestic help in return for ‘food and education’.
Some think the trend is healthy for the society which has thousands of orphans and poor while others have termed it an ‘evolving’ form of child abuse.
Riyaz Qadri, an educationist, has helped three such young boys in their education while they worked at his home in Srinagar. Now, two of them are employed by the government while the third is in college, living their lives well.
“They keep coming here. It gives me satisfaction to be a part of building somebody’s life,” Qadri says.
A two decade-old conflict in the valley has left thousands to suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. More than 45,000 people (including militants and government forces) lost their lives in the violence leaving thousands of families dependent and destitute, officials say.
“Besides those living in poverty, there are thousands of orphans across the valley. I personally feel, if middle-class families can take basic house-hold help from these children they can reciprocate it by educating them till they become independent,” says Qadri.
‘Like our own’
According to a report titled ‘Orphaned in Kashmir’ by child rights organisation, Save the Children, there are about 200,000 orphans in Kashmir valley, 37 per cent of who lost their parents in the two decades of conflict. The majority of these children are from villages of Kupwara, Anantnag, Baramulla and Ganderbal which bore the maximum brunt of violence.
That is the reason that before 1989, when armed insurgency began, Kashmir had few orphanages. Srinagar had just one, with fewer than 20 children.
Today there are half-a-dozen large institutions in the city – and even more scattered throughout the valley.
But Qadri insists, “I feel they suffer psychologically in orphanages. Taking them instead in one’s family and treating them like a family member will help in bringing them up in a better way.”
Not many are, however, convinced about the positives of the trend. Many just object to make children work.
It is a form of slavery, feels Hina Mir, a law graduate. “It is inhumane to sit on your bed and ask a child to get a glass of water, buy some vegetables or to clean the dishes. Not all treat them well, but only claim so,” she says.
The concerns of Mir are not misplaced. Working at a tender age, often, makes these children a victim of humiliation.
Afshana (name changed) from a village in Sopore is a student of the fifth grade. She is living in a bureaucrat’s family with two more ‘helpers’, elder to her, in the house.
“I have started to study after a gap of many years. We have our timings to eat after the family eats their meals. We are served in separate dishes. If the work is not done properly, I do get scolded as well. But this is how it is. It’s not home,” she says.
Prominent sociologist, Bashir Ahmed Dabla says he is not ready to accept the trend as beneficial to society. He calls it a case of ‘hopelessness and political failure’.
“Our politicians have failed in providing the basic facilities to even new born babies. Now imagine how much effort would be made to keep track of the living conditions of these children working in urban households. There are no official figures to know how many children are under house-hold work,” he says.
“I don’t think helping these children ‘informally’ will solve the problem at large. We know how these kids are exploited even in houses. The deep rooted problem is poverty. It is the government which needs to introduce vocational jobs and other facilities for such children,” Dabla stresses.
Prominent Islamic cleric and chief rector of Darul Uloom Bandipora, Mufti Nazir Ahmad offers a solution rooted in Islamic history.
“At the time of Prophet, peace be upon Him, Muslims adopted the orphans of their brethren killed in wars. Even Quran gives immense stress for taking care of an orphan. Our Prophet many times motivated people for bringing up orphans,” the cleric says.
“We just need to change our Niyah (intention). Bring up an orphan to please Allah and you will be rewarded in both the worlds.”
(The author is a trainee with The Hindustan Times)