Locked away

Updated Apr 26 2017


THE Mendez Report compiled by UN special rapporteur on torture in 2015 indicates there are at least eight to 10 million children living in orphanages, residential homes, psychiatric hospitals and other institutions around the world who need to be protected against torture and ill treatment.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia have the highest numbers of children living in institutionalised settings, as the socialist system provides collective services to unwanted children despite the fact that most of them have parents. At the same time, effects of industrialisation, breakup of families due to migrant labour and adherence to eugenics in capitalist economies resulted in the same kind of incarceration of children in rich countries.

In recent years, much information on the plight of children in these institutions has emerged. Human Rights Watch reported physical beating, tying children to cribs or wheelchairs, verbal abuse and humiliation at state institutions for children with disabilities in Russia, sexual violence against girls in India, shackling of children in Ghana, inappropriate use of psychotropic medications in Serbia, and use of electroconvulsive therapy without anaesthesia in Indonesia.

Disturbing reports have emerged of children in institutions.

In the US at the Judge Rotenberg Centre, Massachusetts, children with autism are still meted out barbaric treatments of electric shocks and other ‘aversives’ for behaviour modification, such as pinching, spatula spanking, forced inhalation of ammonia and chemical and mechanical restraints, enumerated in a report presented in 2010 to the special rapporteur on torture.

Institutions are often overcrowded, with regimentation, fixed timetables, lack of stimulation and neglect. According to Disability Rights International (DRI), “Children with disabilities around the world are locked away in institutions and forgotten — many from birth … We have seen children left permanently tied into cribs and beds where many die. Some die from intentional lack of medical care as their lives are not deemed worthy”. It found autistic children locked in cages in Paraguay and Uruguay, child trafficking, forced labour and sex slavery in Mexico, and starvation in Romania. In other places, children had developed muscular atrophy because of being tied to their beds, while food deprivation was common.

Even more harmful is the impact of institutionalisation on the emotional and physical health of children. DRI reported that separation from families and the larger community affects brain development and cognitive function, leading to a higher prevalence of mental and behavioural problems. Lack of human affection and attachment causes irreversible psychological and emotional damage, including severe developmental delays, depression, and increased rates of suicide and criminal activity.

“In almost all institutions with children, we find them rocking back and forth, chewing their fingers or hands or gouging at their eyes or hitting themselves — a reaction to total sensory deprivation and a lack of human love or contact.” The death rate of institutionalised children with disabilities is far higher than the rate among other children.

In developing countries, poverty, ill health and disability are the primary reasons for placement of children in institutions, followed by abuse and abandonment. A Delhi shelter home has thrice the number of children than its capacity; even the caretakers admit that once children are brought in, they quickly lose their social and learning skills.

In Lahore, the Chaman Centre for Mentally Challenged Children has 22 children, ages seven to 14, with just two supervisors whereas there should be at least five qualified caretakers at all times. There is not a single psychologist, therapist or educationist, no CCTV cameras, and no manuals or guidelines for the employees. There are many such institutions in Pakistan where physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and other offences are rampant because of weak oversight by senior administrators and government functionaries.

The Mendez Report posits a much-needed examination of national and international laws and practices for children’s protection. It emphasises that institutions are inherently dangerous where children with disabilities are especially liable to be tortured. Unicef and WHO have also called for an end to institutionalisation and a moratorium on fresh placements so that governments can initiate the process of de-institutionalisation through legislation, legal aid, family support, community integration and inclusion.

It has become a serious human rights issue, not only because the conventions on child rights and rights of persons with disabilities clearly mandate that children should live with their families or in home-like environments within the community, but also because these findings have a direct bearing on implementation of the convention against torture in Pakistan. The government and the National Commission for Human Rights must introduce wide-ranging reforms relating to these conventions to improve child care in the country.

The writer is a former federal secretary.


Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2017