Meenal Kolatkar On How Prayas Is Working For The Children Suffering Because Of Their Parents’ Crimes
- IWB Post
- March 1, 2019
While Prayas (a TISS Field Action Project dedicated to transforming the lives of vulnerable groups coming in contact with the criminal justice system) keeps up the good fight for women prisoners, ensuring the well being of their children remains a major challenge.
Prayas tries to ensure that the children of women prisoners who live outside the prison are safe with their families and conduct home visits for the same. If they are not, they are brought to the notice of the Child Welfare Committees under the Juvenile Justice Act by Prayas social workers and shifted to shelter homes as per the provisions of the Act. For children who are living with their families, Prayas provides financial support for their educational expenses, apart from providing medical, emergency, rationing, or housing support, as per the needs of these children.
Even in cases when families are reluctant to provide for the children of women prisoners, Prayas’sfirst effort is always to convince them to do the same through regular counselling. When they persist for a while, even the families realise that if the social workers who are complete strangers for the children are doing so much for them, it is their duty to take care of our children. However, in the case of the children who live in the prison with their mothers (6 years and below), the problem becomes even more pronounced.
Meenal Kolatkar, a social worker at Prayas who works for the children of women prisoners, shares, “There were many children who were clueless about the outside world. If by chance we had to take them out for something, a hospital visit, for instance, they would show great fear for something as normal as a street dog.”
Growing up in a women’s prison, these children could not differentiate between men and women. For them, barring the police guards, everyone else was a woman. Meenal explains, “We have seen children using feminine pronouns and raising questions for their fathers and asking questions like “why are you not wearing a saree.”
“With such incidents, Prayas realised the need to introduce these children to the workings of outside world. We felt like they were serving their sentence in the jail for no fault of their own. Something had to be done,” says Meenal.
Thus, Prayas started the first balvadi for children living in prison with their mothers (below the age of six) in the early nineties at Arthur Road Prison in Mumbai, for the wholesome development of the children who live in the jails with their mothers.
This initiative has now been taken over by the Department of Women and Child Development, Govt. of Maharashtra, and through the advocacy efforts of Prayas, such balwadis have been started in seven prisons across the state. The balwadis, known as anganwadis, are run under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, for providing children with pre-school education and supplementary nutrition.
However, when it comes to the children of women prisoners left outside, Prayas often deals with challenging cases. Meenal shares with me a case where Prayas worked tirelessly to arrange a meeting between a woman prisoner and her children.
In the case, Lata (name changed to protect confidentiality) was imprisoned for murdering her husband Ramesh (name changed to protect confidentiality).
“As soon as we approached Lata, she started crying and asking for her children. She told us that her children were in Odisha and she was really worried about their safety. She also begged for us to arrange a meeting with them,” Meenal shares.
When Prayas looked into the matter they found out that while the children were earlier staying with their mama (uncle), later Ramesh’s family took their custody and moved them to Odisha.
Meenal says, “We thus requested a local social worker to ensure that the children were doing fine. However, the social worker told us that the children were not safe at all. All the villagers were furious at the death of Ramesh and after a six-month-long house arrest, the children were shifted to a nearby institution.”
Prayas then sent numerous mails to the CWC, DCPO, Childline, and even the district collector but all of them went unanswered. “When nothing worked, I personally went to the judge who was handling Lata’s case and asked him to help us in arranging a meeting between the mother and the children,” Meenal shares.
The judge suggested her to go to Odisha and to submikt a case report if she wanted to make it happen. Thus, Prayas decided to follow the judge’s instructions and do the same.
Even after they reached Odisha, they had to make a lot of efforts to reach the children and they were even told that that the children didn’t want to meet their mother. However, as soon as the Prayas social workers told them about their mother and her desire to meet them, they started crying and said that they were yearning to meet her too.
The social workers then asked the children to write a letter expressing that they were willing to meet their mother and they readily obliged.
When they produced the letter before the district collector, while she felt bad about the situation, she refused to take responsibility for the meeting. “From CWC to the district collector, no one was ready to take the responsibility of these kids traveling all the way to Mumbai. Everyone had the power but no one took the decision,” says Meenal.
Six months later, Lata was acquitted in the case but going to Odisha was not an option. In fact, her father-in-law had threatened to kill Lata if she is was not put back in prison again.
Now while Lata is in Mumbai writhing for her children, her children remain in Odisha waiting for orders that allow them to travel to Mumbai and unite with their mother.
While Prayas continues to unite the family, the authorities have turned mute spectators and without their permissions, it is an impossible task despite the incessant efforts put in by the social workers.
Image for representational purposes only.
Sometimes one mistake is all it takes to condemn you for life. But everyone deserves a second chance in life, especially when he/she is willing to mend their ways and live a life of dignity. We at IWB strongly believe that.
Thus, this Independence day, IWB is joining hands with Prayas in their fight for women prisoners where we are striving to reverse the mire of their mistakes and the stigma that has followed them and to help them live a life of dignity, where they embrace their independence, with their heads held high.
This article was first published on August 18, 2018.