ChildLine: the Voice on the Other End

Program reaches out to children in danger across India

by / November 29, 2006
The street is dark. A small girl stands under a pale street lamp; she can't remember which way is home. She reaches up to a pay phone and dials 1098. Instantly, the voice on the other end tells her to stay put, help is coming, someone to rescue her from the terrors of the street.

ChildLine India is a group dedicated to helping children. It provides a free, emergency phone number for children to call in a crisis, available 24 hours a day, all over India. By working with organizations such as UNICEF, as well as government agencies, ChildLine is able to give endangered youth the chance they need to survive. They reach out to all children who are in danger -- street children, child laborers, HIV/AIDS infected children, children who are lost, victims of abuse -- in any situation.

Children are not just on the receiving end of this organization. Most of the volunteers who run ChildLine are young people who have had troubled times before and are now giving back to their communities. They hold open house events where children can assess and critique the program, helping to find better solutions to problems.

ChildLine's call centers are spread across India, manned by specially trained youth volunteers and social workers. When a child calls ChildLine a team from the nearest center is at the scene within 60 minutes to get the child the help he or she needs. This could mean taking the child to the hospital if it is a medical emergency or to the police if they have been abused.

"The phone is very important for a street child because they would not be able to talk openly face-to-face. They are not comfortable and therefore would not be able to share their problems or emote as they feel," says Sameer, a ChildLine team member from Yuva Mumbai. "They feel comfortable talking over the phone. They are able to express their fear, sorrows and emotions freely over the phone."

Communication is the key to success for ChildLine. Rafiq, a ChildLine team member from Hamara Club Mumbai explains: "The way we talk to children. We participate. It's based on trust. A child feels comfortable ... this results in a strong bond, wherein ChildLine then becomes an important part of their life."

According to the group, over 4.5 million calls have been taken by ChildLine across India. 1,500 social workers and 155 child rights leaders operate 75 ChildLine call centers, contact 55 support service bases and reach out to 2,000 children everyday. ChildLine has centers in 73 cities in 22 states, and it is estimated that 20 percent of the world's helpline calls are in India on the 1098 phone line.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of ChildLine is the way information is spread. In today's media society, most people are used to hearing/ seeing/ reading about new programs. But the group does not advertise -- in fact it purposely distances itself from the media for at least a year when coming to a new city. Information is spread by word-of-mouth. Volunteers go to marketplaces, railroad stations and beaches to get the word out. "Children who call ChildLine are those who live in extremely vulnerable situations" so, according to the group's Web site, spreading information person-to-person makes children confident in ChildLine. Most of the children helped by the program do not even have access to media. ChildLine also "organizes workshops with children to discuss innovative ways to spread the message" such as street theatre, posters and songs.

Although the technology may not be considered cutting-edge, ChildLine's use of telecommunications and call centers is making an extreme difference in the lives of at-risk youth in India.

Gina M. Scott Writer