India has more children than any other country in the world, and an estimated 1.5 million children grow up in residential institutions. Often privately run and poorly regulated, these institutions can leave children extremely vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and neglect.
The saga of how 5-year-old Saroo Brierley survived life on the streets after being separated from his brother and his eventual adoption by an Australian couple inspired the 2016 movie "Lion." It also called attention to the plight of India’s “forgotten” children — those forced to survive without parents or family. Inspired by the film and UNICEF's work in India, UNICEF USA New York Board Member Purvi and Harsh Padia teamed up with UNICEF USA to launch Project Lion in 2018.
Project Lion collaborates with 12 state governments and the national Government of India to implement non-institutional, family-based alternative care for children because every child deserves to grow and thrive in a nurturing place they can call home. Project Lion aims to create sustainable, systematic change and centers its work around four core pillars:
In its first three years, Project Lion nearly tripled its initial goal, reaching more than half a million children. Project Lion has ensured that children's care is placed at the forefront of policies. Because of the program, UNICEF has marked positive shifts in the provision of care for vulnerable children in India. There has been widespread adoption of more child-friendly care models. Standards of care at children's institutions have improved, particularly when managing children's unique needs and cases appropriately and effectively.
In this next phase of Project Lion, the program is reaching half of all states in India, home to about 75 percent of the population of children ages 18 years old and younger in the country. The program is responding to the protection needs of an estimated 500,000 children through:
Improving standards of care: UNICEF is helping build stronger case management systems, care worker trainings and alternatives to juvenile detention to ensure children receive proper care.
Scaling alternative care: UNICEF is developing more intentional family and kin-based after-care models for children who leave institutions.
Strengthening families and communities: UNICEF is preventing the institutionalization of children and encouraging families to be the primary caregivers through support services such as cash transfer and COVID-19 relief programs.
Providing mental health & psychosocial support: UNICEF is providing mental health services to children without parental care, as well as trainings for child protection workers to better care for and refer proper treatment to children.
Improving child protection systems: UNICEF is working with a diversity of stakeholders including emergency call responders, police and local leaders to improve child protection systems and implement greater accountability and standards amongst care givers in institutions.
With COVID-19 severly impacting families in India and increasing the challenges that children face, Project Lion is critical in promoting family-first care and guidance on how to prevent further spread of the virus. In addition to helping ensure that children have a safe place to live, the program also helps provide some much-needed sense of normalcy. For thousands of children in India who have been left without family care, Project Lion is supporting their growth in loving, stable, nurturing and protective environments.