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     Volume 7 Issue 28 | July 11, 2008 |

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Human Rights

The Fallen Angels

Whether for survival or mere pleasure gratification, adolescents are becoming increasingly involved in more and more serious offences. But are they solely responsible for their actions, or are there other factors at work?

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Ten-year-old Sadek, whose father had abandoned the family and whose mother works as a domestic help, was put in an orphanage at the age of eight. He ran away from the institution several times, claiming that they beat him there and that he did not like the food. Now, working as a tailor's apprentice, he still does not like going "to work". Often, he leaves for work and ends up spending the day at Dhanmondi Lake.

This is the usual story of a "delinquent" child. Skipping school, breaking rules are the beginnings of a delinquent tendency. Many children stop there, but others move on to more serious offences, including even rape and murder.

According to a Save the Children, UK report, the number of children confined in jails and child development centres rose from 558 (313 in jails, 245 in development centres) in January of this year to 662 (380 in jails, 282 in development centres) in April. At least five murders committed last year by juveniles were due to reasons such as altercations during play, muggings and disagreements over sharing the profits from selling stolen goods. According to a Daily Star report, the children were as efficient as professional criminals, destroying evidence and feeling no repentance for their crimes, even though it was a first offence for many.

What leads adolescents to such destruction? At an age where they should be going to school, playing with friends and enjoying their lives, what makes them choose delinquent and even dangerous careers which cost them not only their childhoods but, sometimes, their whole lives?

A desperate measure at keeping a child out of trouble when his parents are not home. Photo: Sk Enamul Haque

For many young people, the answer is the lack of such a normal life. For children who cannot go to school and who do not have the luxury of play and enjoyment, a life of crime seems to be the only option to feed themselves and their families. Small misdemeanours like bunking school can eventually lead to petty theft, drug dealing and even murder. For others, especially those who feel excluded from society, belonging to groups with other delinquent peers provides them with security, whether from school bullies or neighbourhood thugs. Yet others turn to crime for quick and temporary pleasures.

Juvenile delinquency is a legal term which is a result of what is referred to in the mental health profession as conduct disorder in children. "It starts from things like skipping school and stealing to getting involved in taking and dealing drugs and so on," says clinical psychologist Kamal UA Chowdhury.

During his involvement in a study with juvenile delinquents in correction centres and government shelter homes, Chowdhury found offences ranging from minor (such as defying one's parents, stealing fruits from the neighbour's garden, bunking school, etc.) to moderate (stealing, video game addiction) and severe crimes (drug and weapons dealing and murder). "If the minor acts are considered to be delinquency then everyone, from the fictional Huckleberry Finn to our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, was a delinquent," says Chowdhury. According to the clinical psychologist, we must take care in labelling children as delinquents depending on the seriousness of their offences, as well as holding them fully responsible for their actions.

"In many foreign countries," says Chowdhury, "the responsibility is not only the offending child's but also the parents'. Not only children but parents are also fined and taken into custody in serious cases in order to better understand the situation and treat the child. In our country, only the children are held responsible, whereas family and the greater society all play a role."

There are many factors leading to a child's becoming a delinquent. According to Chowdhury, also Chairperson at the department of Clinical Psychology at Dhaka University, there are both external and internal factors at work.

"External factors," says Chowdhury, "include poverty, exposure to media like the internet and television without supervision, growing up in a crime-prone environment, exposure to drugs and peer pressure which makes it seem as if taking drugs like Yaba and Phensidyl make one smart and cool."

The lack of alternative physical activities is also a problem, says Chowdhury. Between the impressionable ages of 12 and 18, children have a lot of physical energy, which needs to be released, they want to experiment with their bodies, test their limits. "Before, children used to play sports like badminton, cricket and football in big playing fields. Now they don't have this physical space or the time, due to increased school pressure. And so they turn to risky behaviour like driving at extreme speed, etc." Children with low intelligence levels who do badly at school are also more likely to drop out and get caught up in the cycle of delinquency.

However, in Chowdhury's opinion, internal factors play a more important role in the lives of children. "Parental influence, child-rearing practice, how parents discipline children are all very important. Extreme and irregular love and punishment are harmful, they must be balanced. There should be adequate discipline, with parents guiding children with regards to who they will talk to and spend time with, as well as teaching them to respect and honour social norms and values."

"Children are of an age where they need to experiment. Without guidance, they channel their energies in a wrong direction. Some children don't even know that what they're doing is wrong, they've never been taught the difference. They think this is life."

"Children commit crimes for two reasons," says Chowdhury, "either because they don't realise it is a crime because they haven't been taught to differentiate between right and wrong, or because they don't feel they have an alternative, due to the environment in which they have grown up. For example, for a child raised in a negative environment like a slum area, crime is the only example set."

Children from low-income families are at the greatest disadvantage, with their parents (if they have any) not being able to spare enough time, their inability to attend school due to financial constraints, and an overall negative environment in slum areas where crime is rampant. For children growing up in such an atmosphere, it is difficult to know right from wrong and to choose to do what is right. But it is not only poor children who get involved in crime. Youngsters from the upper classes of society also get involved in drug abuse leading to theft, muggings and drug dealing as well as sex crimes, producing pornography for videos and the internet, etc.

"The difference between the two groups," says Chowdhury, "is that the poor often commit crimes for mere survival, while the rich do it for pleasure gratification, derived from money, sex, drugs, risk-taking, an adventurous lifestyle."

Why have crimes among children, and serious crimes at that, increased in recent years? Kamal UA Chowdhury believes it is due to more stressful lives. "Parents work late and have little quality time to spare for their children. Children often grow up alone or are brought up by the home help who cannot provide the same guidance and rules of morality as parents can." In the absence of parental guidance, peers and the media play a stronger role. The media often depict "cult heroes" and violence without its true consequences. Without supervision, children are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality in the media and between right and wrong in real life.

Children give out warning signals very early on, says Chowdhury. While lawyers, clinical psychologists and paediatricians can help adolescents who have a history of delinquency, the initial warning signs can best be spotted by teachers at school. Skipping classes, breaking rules, defying authority are all signs that a child may go astray. "If parents are informed at this stage and teachers themselves deal with the children with patience and understanding, steps can be taken to prevent this."

As for the cure, correction centres are not enough, believes Chowdhury. "Overall livelihoods must be improved so that children don't feel forced to turn to crime." As far as correction centres go, he says, "With our present resources, this is probably the best we can do. But a regular life, exercise, study and play, a big playing field are not enough."

A happy and secure childhood can deter children from choosing delinquent lives A victim of kidnapping after rescue, with his group of adolescent abductors.

Children of different ages and confined for different crimes in terms of severity should be kept apart so that the younger ones are not bullied or influenced by the older and more seasoned delinquents. Teachers must be trained to provide correct guidance, to use the proper tools for disciplining children. Corporal punishment, for example, is not the solution and can actually cause humiliation and more anger leading to greater defiance. Finally, to stop them from committing further crimes, children require counselling. They need to be educated about the consequences of their actions as well as their options for the future, activities they can do, skill development, if they are not interested in studying then in alternative options. "Their interest must be shifted from the negative to the positive," says Chowdhury. "Rehabilitation must consist of integrated support, with the family, school and peers accepting a returning child instead of victimising them for their past misdemeanours which could push them back into crime. Legal cases of minors also need to be handled with care by lawyers and children must be given the opportunity to develop their potential as rightful citizens and not victimised as offenders."

The role of psychologists is very important, says Chowdhury. "Though there are few psychologists trained in this area, the clinical psychology profession is developing in Bangladesh, and these qualified professionals can directly offer services to these children as well as training and supervision to professionals working with them."

There needs to be research by a wide range of professionals including lawyers, clinical psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, etc., in order to better understand children and adolescents, the nature of their problem, the causes and the context and how best to support these children, believes Chowdhury. This understanding will help to design activities and programmes that will give the children, their parents and caretakers hope.

"Human beings are like musical instruments," says the clinical psychologist. "It's like a guitar where the strings need tuning. If not tuned properly, the music will be coarse and wrong. Similarly, children need to be tuned too. Parents and society must pay attention, watch for warning signals and treat them at the initial stage for a smoother future."

Whether for survival or mere pleasure, adolescents turn to crime only when they find no other option available. Sending them to correction centres is not the only or even the best cure. Taking the time to teach children right from wrong, instilling respect for social norms and values, making them understand the consequences of their actions can all lead to fewer adolescents getting involved in crime. From parents and family to friends, relatives and the greater society, everyone has a role to play in giving children love, attention and security in a chaotic world, during a turbulent time in their lives.


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