Let children be themselves


Chitra Ahanthem.

This week threw a major surprise in the form of a newspaper advertisement in a daily Manipuri newspaper. It was an announcement for a “Manipur Barbie Queen contest” for under 12 year olds to be held at in the hall of the memorial to Subhash Chandra Bose at INA, Moirang! While there is no dearth of shocking developments taking place around us like the very recent warning to private mobile service providers to wrap up their mobile towers and the deafening silence from the civil bodies; this small advertisement made me blink in shock. Just how have we reached this plane where sensibilities have disappeared?

Children Beauty Contest Advertisement in a Daily Manipuri Newspaper

First of all, the sheer madness of it! How can girls younger than 12 years compete in a beauty contest? And then, a contest that is named after Barbie; the classic prototype of blond and anorexic? Won’t a beauty contest for young children be a classic case of child exploitation and rights violation? What parameters would be used to judge the young participants? These questions trouble me deeply. A child is beautiful in his or her own way regardless of features or attire. It is their inherent innocence and playful nature. So why should beauty contests happen where children will be made to look like caricatures of adults?

Children can pull at heart-strings. They can also be a market decider. That is why most print and visual advertisements feature children, regardless of whether the product being sold is a toothpaste, soap, noodles, car and other vehicles, electric appliances et el. The strategy works because when a child sees another child possessing something that he/she does not have, her concentration goes to that
object. Try saying a “no” to a child who after popular advertisements for snacks wants a packet. You can risk it at the cost of your ear-drums being shattered by unending wails. My own soon to be 6 year old explains to me kindly: “Mama, they also say brushing your teeth twice a day keeps off all germs. So why can’t I have a pack of Uncle Chips/Bingo/Mamoos…?” Try getting past that logic! And while building a brand with a child appearing in its advertisement is another matter altogether, the concept of beauty contests for young children may well be unethical and violating norms of child protection. Some of the Constitutional rights that may well end up being violated are Article 39 (vocation unsuited to age, protection of children against exploitation), Article 45 (no child below 14
years shall be engaged in hazardous employment) and Article 46 (protection from social injustice and exploitation). Also, every child has a right to participate in cultural activities that may include songs, dance and any other artistic pursuit recognized to be healthy. But a beauty contest for young children cannot be termed “healthy” by any stretch of imagination.

But how do such contests tend to go towards exploitation? The answer is clear on this: with children as the main players, there will be parents who will happily assume that the contest is a platform for their child to show her talent, to prove herself. Some critics can even turn around and question my disquiet saying: “but if the parents are comfortable with their young children taking part in a beauty contest, why raise a hue and cry?” The fact is that most parents will not look critically into the question. They will get carried away by the hype, the shot at 3 minutes of fame n local channels and newspapers, the few amount of prize money but not consider that such a contest will only serve the interest of everyone concerned but for the children taking part in it. That is where the child would end up being exploited by all parties concerned.

Some time earlier, there was intense debate on a national level around the nature of “talent contests” on TV channels that featured child artists and hopefuls as participants. The debate happened following the emotional and mental break down of a young child participating in a music reality show. She had been given a public and very vocal criticism of her performance and went into such trauma that she had to be hospitalized. Following this incident, there was a public and media scrutiny over the nature of children taking part in such talent contests: how many hours would they have to practice before they went on TV, how many hours they would get to rest and sleep and play and how much can children take in as public criticism. Soon, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) came up with strict laws for TV shows involving children. These call for a counselor on the sets of the show, limited working hours and no deep make-up for children.


Competitions are part of the process of growing up but when it is tied to the concept of beauty, it gets into a difficult terrain. Perhaps the organizers of this soon to be held contest have not thought much into it and gone ahead with their planning. But it is not too late to consider what demons they might well unleash in the lives of the young girls. Small little girls who will walk under public scrutiny and perform songs or dance or whatever it is they have to do to take way a crown that will be meaningless in a place where they don’t have a clue over their future and its safety. PS: A photograph of the advertisement along with a calling attention has been sent to the Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to alert them about this forth-coming event. This step had to be taken up on an individual level following the silence from NGOs working for Child rights Protection in the state at the time of writing this column.

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  1. A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood………..who ever has said that!!

  2. True.True also that here at this point self proclaimed”liberals”,some self style”gaudians”,some “happily settled”,civil bodies” ,even their atleast presence will not be felt!-‘deafening silence”

    Might be a bit irrelavent but want to put here.last year when was at home,when I waiting for some work beside a mayang ironing wala.Surprisingly,I saw some kids(three of different ages,as young ranges between 6-12),dart out from a corners with playful noises-“baba..baba…”(i cannt exactly remember).I bit uncomfertably and alarmed at my not so friendly glance the mayang ironing wala hush and soo all of them……These kids looks like local only that skins were definitely miscegenation with no doubt ….In kangleipak lots of activities on going and mostly negatives

  3. Chitra I do like your column because it is human interest non-specialist. And I have faith in the ordinary human response. Good for you for taking on the system. We had a woman in the UK Mary Whitehouse who became famous for her crusade against what she believed was pornography entering mainstream Television. They started by laughing at her but in the end she made a difference for a time. Perhaps she slowed down the inevitable trend towards modernity. Exploitation is endemic to capitalism. Don’t mind me but there is a reason I am heading eastwards just as there is a reason most Indians and Manipuris head westwards.

    Personally not being an expert on the Indian Constitution Article 39 age barred vocations for me would apply to child soldiers. Children should not be used in the wars between adults. Article 45 for hazardous employment, Children should not be used, the example in Britain would have been chimney sweeps, if India sent small children into the air vents of nuclear reactors for example because they were the only ones small enough to crawl through that for me would be a violation. Rag trade is where westerners made a fuss. But then people say it’s not enough to ban the child from employment if you don’t provide them with free education, and the chance to get a better job when they are older. If all you do is ban the job in India the criminals pick up and start again in Bangladesh or somewhere else. Article 46 protection from social justice and exploitation you might have had a case before the recent child showbiz scandal. It’s good that you caught up with the whole thing about providing schooling tutors holidays, and they always offer counselling now if you do anything in showbiz. The West has had enough child stars for this to be fully regulated now. Child stars probably have their own trade union.

    I don’t think Dr Ambedikar intended the constitutional rights to apply to the petit bourgeois pushy mother brigade who get send their kids to drama teachers and sew the sequins on the costumes themselves, although this is not a legal opinion. I think their rights are covered by right to privacy, freedom of association, and probably the most fundamental of all human rights, the right to be a complete plonker in the bringing up of your own children, even though it is clear to everyone else that you are deluding yourselves that you are somehow giving them the opportunities daddy never gave you, with the further inalienable right to demand that no one else has the right to tell you that your way of bringing up sweetness is completely wrong and only someone else’s way is the right way.

    Good luck with the NCPCR by the way but if you are stupid enough to engage in private or public debate with one of the aforesaid pushy mothers you will discover that the human right I have quoted was designed to protect you from the backlash and not them from you.

    I share your gut reaction for what it’s worth. This is what India will become if it insists on glorifying and worshipping all things american. Tacky nasty tasteless devoid of depth and spirituality but with that particular Indian twist it won’t matter how hard you train your kids if you aren’t related to one of the judges your kid is never gonna win.

    If I may add my anti-AFSPA point to help in freeing Irom Sharmila. Mr Watson the Chair of the EU/India Delegation of MEPs emailed me recently saying that the next delegation to visit India is planned for mid-April. They don’t usually come to the north-east (go figure they prefer Goa). But he is trying to convince them to pay a trip to Manipur, they will apply to visit Irom Sharmila, and raise the repeal of AF(SP)A with the authorities (people think that contravenes the Constitution’s right to life granted to all citizens but no one’s had any luck with that in India). The smooth segue was that four new development projects were announced by the EC for India. The third was for the protection of children. People do care about children. Evolutionary psychology argues that we need a longer period of protection to survive in a post-industrialized world. Adolescence doesn’t exist until industrialization. The rights of women and children come to the fore only in technologically advanced worlds or very primal worlds or not that’s not important.
    Anyway this would be my point I have written to the NGO concerned to see if they will have anything to show for the investment for mid-April this year. If they aren’t just stealing the money then the MEPs will have something to visit, something to report back upon. Manipur gets one step closer to AF(SP)A repeal and Irom Sharmila one day closer to freedom. This is the remit of the development fund. I can’t see them getting involved in show biz though.

    Dear Mr. Watson,
    I’m glad to give you the requested information about the EIDHR project in Manipur, India:
    This project has been selected through the local Call for Proposals EIDHR-CBSS (Country Based Support Scheme) by the EU Delegation in New Delhi. Responsible colleague: Renuka SRINIVASAN
    Title: Promoting Organised Initiative of Victims and Civil Society Institutions for Ending Violence against Children 
    Beneficiary: Wide Angle (Social Development Organisation) – UK
    Overall Objective: Aims to set up a vigilant and sustained civil society network for protection of Child Rights in Manipur
    EU contribution: €106,711€
    Duration: 36 months. Starting date of activities: 01/01/2011
    a) Substancial reduction of child rights violation by the conflicting parties;
    b) Establishment of State Commission for Child Rights to monitor and ensure right to education and proper implementation of state public welfare schemes;
    c) Engage the security establishment, Ministry of Home Affairs through Initiation of legislative advocacy for adhering to the codes and standards in handling children in conflict area.
    Final Beneficiaries: Children who are victims of severe human right violations in remote villages by security forces as well as by the underground groups.
    Main Activities: (i) Monitoring and Documentation; (ii) Building civil society network – training and workshops; (iii) Survey, research/publication on the Status of Children in Manipur; (iv) Training of Child Rights Defenders; (v) Legislative Advocacy; (vi) Legal Aid Centre
    Should you need more information, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
    Martha Méndez 
European Commission – AuropeAid Co-operation Office 
European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights 
Unit DEVCO-F/2- Central management of thematic budget lines under EIDHR and Ifs 
Office: L-41 02/42
B-1049 Brussels
Tel: (32) 2 296 99 97
Fax: (32) 2 296 14 30
e-mail: martha.mendez@ec.europa.eu


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