Aged 14 and 13, Osama and Noor are the children of a widowed Afghan national, arrested for possessing heroin. As she languished in Tihar jail, the woman did not know where her children were for nearly a month. And then came a ray of hope in the form of a Delhi court.
The court intervened to inform the woman that her children were safe and in the custody of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). Though the mother wants them to stay together, the children are leading separate lives in shelter homes across the city and the court has also expressed its inability to reunite the siblings.
“Shelters housing teenagers are divided by gender,” her lawyer Waseem Ahmed said.
Imran, 12, was arrested along with his mother for his father’s murder and was sent to a juvenile facility. His father’s family bailed him out, but then disowned him. Before being rescued, he lived without money, food or electricity.
Thousands of children are rendered vulnerable every year across India after their parents are sent to jail. “But the plight of these children remains largely ignored,” said Enakshi Ganguly, co-director of Haq, an NGO working for the protection of children’s rights.
In Tihar Jail alone, around 61% of women inmates have children whom they had to leave behind,” says Sunil Gupta, public relations officer of Tihar jail.
There are no official numbers or concrete directions to police on how to treat these kids. “To society, these children are invisible,” added Rani Shankardass, secretary-general of Penal Reform and Justice Association.
In 2011, Haq informed the United Nations that such children are often “left unattended or spend days alone, once their parent/parents are taken away.” The organization recommended alternative means of detaining accused who are primary caregivers on a case-by-case basis.
Though, prison guidelines encourage monthly visits by children to their parents, the Afghan siblings haven’t seen their mother — or for that matter each other —for two months now. “Separating siblings, who have already lost their parents, can be very traumatic. It leaves the child with no emotional sustenance,” said Dr Bharti Sharma, former CWC chairperson.
Sehba Minai, who works for the Human Rights Law Network — an association of lawyers and social activists fighting for human rights — works in West Bengal where, everyday, Burmese refugees are detained for illegally crossing the border. “Once arrested, entire families get separated, leaving everyone traumatised. Ironically, they come to our country with hope of a better life,” Minai said.
Names of children have been changed to protect their identities.