21/10/2017 8:58 AM IST | Updated 21/10/2017 8:58 AM IST

Why We Should View Religious Reform Through The Child Rights Lens

When religion and culture overshadow human rights, it's time to consider where one must draw the line.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
Image used for representational purposes only.

"At 11, he dropped out of school to devote all his time towards learning religious scriptures. He spent the next two years studying the ways of an ascetic life under his guru. In a month's time, he's going to renounce the world and start life afresh as a monk," says linguistics professional Mishti Shah* of her 13-year old cousin whose family is bustling around proudly preparing for his diksha ceremony next month. "You can't drive before 16, you can't marry before 18, you can't drink alcohol before 21, but you are allowed to give up worldly life at 13, or even earlier. This is ridiculous!" she says with barely concealed frustration.

The controversy surrounding this religious service cropped up again last month when a young Jain couple from Madhya Pradesh relinquished their assets and took diksha, leaving behind their 3-year-old daughter in the care of relatives. Both stories raise questions about the cultural and religious factors that infringe upon child rights, the helplessness of the state in ending it and the need for liberal social reforms.

In the past, attempts by child rights activists and human rights bodies to prohibit the practice of Bal Diksha (renunciation by children) have been met by severe resistance from Jain community leaders, and disputed legal judgements regarding the extent of state interference with religion. A bench of the Bombay High Court proclaimed Bal Diksha to be "as bad as Sati" in 2008 and pondered over the conflict between the Right to Childhood and the Right to Religion in 2011.

For decades, traditional notions of gender and morality have dominated the exercise of human rights, especially those of women and children.

Nicole Menezes, co-founder of Leher, a child rights organisation, says: "this practice is not in the best interests of children. They are not capable of making informed decisions for themselves. Moreover, there is a grey area concerning the legality of the issue. But I believe that the society really needs to collectively develop its own conscience and decide what it wants for children."

In recent times, members of the Jain community – legally recognised as minority – have been divided over the ramifications of this practice. "Bal Diksha has been a contentious subject within the community, with resistance to the practice developing in the early 20th century The Bal Diksha Pratibandh Andolan, a reformist movement led by a section of the Jains themselves sought prohibition of the practise, not so much out of concern for the ascetic child, but out of fear that children could not possibly uphold the rigours of an ascetic life.

For decades, traditional notions of gender and morality have dominated the exercise of human rights, especially those of women and children.

The controversy has continued into the present, but the terrain of arguments has seen a shift, with the more recent opposition centering on the rights of children," says Manisha Sethi, author of Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among Jains. For decades, traditional notions of gender and morality have dominated the exercise of human rights, especially those of women and children. When religious doctrines join hands with established cultural systems, it leaves barely any space for a broader interpretation of individual justice and freedom. And when left unchallenged, these often intolerant norms pave the way for the exploitation of rights in the name of rituals, conventions and spirituality.

Instead of treating a child's so-called disavowal of the worldly life as an occasion to rejoice, we, as conscious beings of a civilised society, ought to deplore the loss of his right to childhood, right to education, and more importantly, right to life.

The conflict between rights and religion is very real. When religion, society and culture start overshadowing the essence of human rights, it's time to step back and consider where one must draw the line. It is irrational to always leave it up to the law to govern the character of the society that evolves from time to time. This reformist confrontation is not about joining forces against religion; rather it entails standing up for the rights of children, transcending the prevalent social and cultural forces.

"The reluctance to challenge norms prevails among followers of almost every religion. Even when people sense a right from wrong, most are unwilling to publicly call attention to it because of the religious bearing attached to it," says Ektaa Jain, research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

*name changed to protect privacy.

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