Every month, I sit with the CHILDLINE helpline team at my host organisation, Shaishav, to type out the monthly report in English. The team members read out all the reported cases in Hindi (which have been written in Gujarati), while I draft the report in English. It is a minuscule part of my work, but one which often takes up most of my mind space for the week after because of the severity of some of the cases reported. “The CHILDLINE call centre called to say that Sejal*, an eight year old girl, has been raped by an unknown person in the field behind her house, and her family sought help to find him,” says my colleague in Hindi. In such cases, I continue to type the report while fighting to hold back my tears at the same time.
CHILDLINE is India’s first 24-hour, free, emergency phone service for children in need of aid and assistance. The toll free number, 1098, can be dialed by any concerned adult or child, who are witness to children in need of protection. These issues can range from abuse and child labour to assistance with sponsorships, shelter home placements, information and receiving government schemes, medical subsidiaries, as well as emotional support and counselling. This is an all-India service run by the CHILDLINE India Foundation with the crucial support of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD). Shaishav is one of their regional partners that handles the cases of Bhavnagar district in Gujarat.
One Saturday, I accompany the Shaishav CHILDLINE team on an outreach awareness to a school. These visits are planned and conducted after having sought permission from the principal. The school children are waiting for us post the assembly and the Shaishav team takes them through the details of how the helpline work. “Your identity and phone number will be kept confidential. Even your parents will never be informed if you call us”, says the team member, and I notice many children nod in relief. “This is not a medical helpline though”, she continues, explaining to me later how the team receives calls regularly from parents, asking about how to relieve their two year old’s constipation or stop the child’s hiccups. As we leave, two children and a teacher approach our team hesitantly. The need for such a helpline is evident, but the hesitation in people forces me to wonder, how we, as a society can move beyond the uncomfortable silence surrounding it all.
A large component of the CHILDLINE team’s work at Shaishav includes raising awareness about certain government schemes pertaining to children. The team raises awareness about the various schemes for single parents, orphaned children, children with disabilities, and assists families in receiving benefits. Prior to joining Shaishav, even I was not aware of most of these schemes offered by the government. The CHILDLINE team works in collaboration with the government shelter homes, child welfare committees, child protection officers, hospitals, police and other organisations to assist families and children to benefit from these schemes. In my eight months here, I have seen a large number of children avail these schemes and have seen how help, in even the most mundane things, can go such a long way to support people in difficult times.
Every region has its own challenges, peculiar to its topography and culture. The CHILDLINE team at Bhavnagar also have to deal with problems that are unique to the district. For example, Bhavnagar happens to be the last stop for many trains on the Indian Railway Line in the Saurashtra region. Thus, the team receives many cases of runaway children who climbed onto the train or children who got lost on the train and arrived at Bhavnagar, scared and bewildered. A scene that is reminiscent of the Oscar nominated movie Lion and the child’s plight of landing up at the Kolkata station. Efforts to find out their hometown and/or move them to a safer space, requires the team members to work through nights, ever so often.
To add to that, convincing the child to go home and calling and counselling the parents is not an easy task. And one which often directs a lot of anger, frustration and hopelessness from the child or the parent, towards the team members. What keeps them going? “We feel responsible for the safety of each child who we come across”, the CHILDLINE program coordinator tells me. “And though we often get dragged in family and personal matters”, she confides, “knowing I’ve helped someone in a small way, especially in their time of grief, helps me sleep better”. I make a mental note of it, trying to soak in the simplicity of this statement (and knowing that’s what I’m going to miss the most when I leave from here soon).
Calls from the 1098 number are received at the four regional call centres of the CHILDLINE India Foundation, which then forwards the cases to their respective regional area partners. As soon as a case is forwarded to them, the Shaishav CHILDLINE team takes down the case history from the caller and makes a site or home visit. They follow up the cases day after day and carry out multiple visits. They piece together the narratives and handle the cases with utmost care and sensitivity to arrive at the best possible solution in the best interest of the child.
In the case of Sejal*, the CHILDLINE team counselled the child and prepared her to divulge the details. They reassured her parents, assisted in getting the child quick medical care, worked with the police to scan the place for two days – looking for clues or any evidence and in the end, prepare a sketch of the culprit that was put up all over the neighbourhood. Ultimately, the culprit was not found and the parents chose to end the search, wanting their privacy to move on from the incident. I remember the anguish on the CHILDLINE teams’ faces as they closed the case. And yet such a case is anything but an exception. BBC reports that “a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes, according to the latest government figures.”
Taking note of current incidences coming to light in the country and statistics showing India faring poorly in a global ranking of 172 countries on childhood protection,there is still a lot to be done.The CHILDLINE helpline is a small but crucial step in the right direction.
If you’re anywhere in India, remember to dial 1098 when you see a child in distress.
*name changed to protect the child’s identity.
 “CHILDLINE 1098 SERVICE » 1098 Tele Helpline Model.” CHILDLINE India Foundation – 1098 Tele Helpline Model, www.childlineindia.org.in/1098/b1a-telehelpline.htm.
 “India Sexual Abuse: ‘Four Child Victims Every Hour’.” BBC News, BBC, 1 Dec. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-42193533.
 Dey, Sushmi. “’India Fares Poorly in Protecting Childhood’ – Times of India.” The Times of India, India, 1 June 2017, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-fares-poorly-in-protecting-childhood/articleshow/58937261.cms.