I may not be the only one who has evidenced teen girls running away from home and coming across gossip such as, The girl next door girl developed a romantic relationship with a young man over phone. Last night she ran away with him as her parents were against their decision of marrying each other.” This becomes a common conversation among people. The news gets modified and the society does not finish circulating it until another widespread speculation arrives. But nobody ever asks the parents about the kind of agony they go through. Recently, I happened to talk to a mother who is fighting to prove her daughter’s fidelity after she has gone away with a boy.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as ‘a person under 18 years of age’. 39% of the Indian population is children. ChildLine India reported 44,475 children in missing cases. In 2015, National Crime Report Bureau recorded 35,618 missing children cases including those who got abducted, trafficked or ran away. “Most of the ones who are trafficked or abducted, dreadfully end up in Gulf countries as victims of organ trade and even grotesque cannibalism”, reports Child Line India. Those who escape to a city, become victims of pimps and end up with commercial sex workers.

Such bloodcurdling stories take place every minute of every day, that have the potential of sending chills down your spine. National Centre for Missing Children says that every 30 seconds, a child runs away from home. There must be many more cases like that of Janki*, which remain unreported.

Janki, a 16-year-old girl, lives in a rural area of Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh. One day, she was missing. Her parents rummaged through the village, the nearby villages, friends’ houses, streets, but could not trace her. Under a pillow, they found a letter addressed to her mother. Unfortunately, she could not read the letter as she was illiterate or else she would have felt her daughter’s anguish, sixteen years of it, that was engraved in words. Her heart was pounding when she touched the paper.

She was scared of how she would face the society if her daughter has eloped with someone. When an acquaintance read it out loud, she was in shock. The news had spread everywhere, by next morning as bad news travels faster than a good one. Some said that it was a boy from the nearby village who she was friendly with, while others said that the girl was pregnant.

Adjusting her saree, the mother wiped her tears and tied her scattered hair. In a subdued tone, she said, “My daughter did not run away. She escaped. She did not go with a boy, but with her dream. I could not realize the pain she was going through. I could not hear her scream. She was prisoned, suffocating at her own home, but I chose to not see that. My parents never sent me to school and got me married at the age of 14. Similarly, there were limits decided for my daughter. She was not allowed to go to school, to her friends’ house, or to relatives. I wanted her to get married at the age of fourteen thinking “log kya kahenge”. For my whole life, I kept thinking about the same. Today, if she has escaped, I am responsible. I could neither provide a safe childhood nor freedom to dream. My daughter did not flee, she flew to sense the meaning of life.” It was too late. I wish Janki would have written the letter earlier.

This woman reminded of me another instance last summer. As an intern in a shelter home, I was recording the case history of two siblings, in their early teens, who had evaded from home. Typically the kind of cases Child Welfare Committee usually works on, are of escape and of trafficked children. But this girl had different things to say,  “My father is a businessman and my mother is a professor. Both leave for work in the morning and come back at night. I, with my brother, used to remain in our house after school. He would take care of me. We were not allowed to go outside. Till date, we haven’t seen the world apart from a few parties. Our parents would fill our room with video games, and a variety of dolls, but wouldn’t allow us to play outside. When dad used to come back from office, he never asked us how we are. Perhaps he didn’t even know which class we were studying in? My brother and I came here with an expectation to experience what other children of our age, are doing.”

Undoubtedly, children do not escape only because of their fault or because they aren’t wanted enough but also because of strict rules, authoritarian parents and permissive parenting. Many of them cannot deal with the trauma of being a witness to domestic violence and hence, run away. India signed UN Child Rights Commission in 1992, which ensures rights of children and elimination of child labor among other things. It acknowledges the primary role of parents and family in the care and protection of children, as well as the obligation of the State to help them carry out these duties. Do the parents acknowledge their role? Is the state carrying out the assigned duties?

*Name changed to protect identity

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