Neelam Makhijani is the Country Director of ChildFund in India.
The Covid-19 crisis is more than just a health crisis. It has resulted in poverty, internal migration and loss of livelihood for millions, and lest we forget, also caused untimely deaths. While Covid-19 may not impact children directly, it affects them in many ways, especially those from the disadvantaged communities.
Children had the odds stacked against them even before the pandemic. In India, at least 143 children were sexually abused every day; 10.13 million children between ages five and 14 employed in child labour; more than 30 million children were out-of-school, and 223 million minor girls were child brides.
Over decades, government-run child protection structures and services such as the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), Childline–a 24-hour national child emergency helpline, district-level Child Welfare Committees (CWCs), along with other public and private organisations, had achieved tremendous progress in addressing child labour, education, nutrition, mental health, prevention of violence and child marriage. But much of this has been unravelled since the pandemic.
Stay home, stay safe?
School closure due to Covid-19 has increased the risk of violence against children who were already living in abusive, negligent families, especially now, since families are facing economic stress. Childline received over 92,000 SOS calls on child abuse and violence in the first 11 days of the country's shutdown in 2020. But, since children are away from the watchful eyes of teachers, counsellors, and the community, they remain vulnerable.
Additionally, children are experiencing psychosocial stress and stigma as they witness their family's economic struggles, domestic abuse and experience extraordinary social and physical isolation. However, child protection structures and services—historically underfunded and now overburdened and diverted—are often helpless.
Cheap labour, child labour
Economic slowdown, rising unemployment, medical and other debts, along with prolonged school closures, are pushing poor households further into chronic poverty, and by extension, giving rise to instances of child trafficking and child labour. Reverse migration and economic slowdown have further increased the demand for 'affordable' child labour in industries such as agriculture, mining and construction. Girls are more likely to be subjected to exploitation in agriculture, informal labour, and domestic work, and they are at a higher risk of facing sexual and gender-based violence. Even at home, the increasing pressure to manage households, sibling care, and economic constraints are pulling girls further away from education.
Additionally, societal notions that 'girls are a liability' and concerns for their safety and future have led to an increase in child marriages. ChildLine saw an increase of 17 percent in distress calls related to early marriages in June and July 2020, as compared to 2019. As child wives, girls become vulnerable to marital rape, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, have early pregnancy and sometimes death due to pregnancy and childbirth complications.
However, the absence of crucial safeguards to deter such activities and the additional burden of Covid-19 management on state actors has rendered these children extremely vulnerable.
More than 30,000 children have been orphaned, abandoned or have lost a parent primarily due to the pandemic. The real numbers are likely even higher. But these children have little opportunity to live a carefree childhood because of India's abysmal state of adoption and other support systems. Unfortunately, such children may fall victim to illegal adoption, child trafficking and become highly exposed to forced labour, violence, deprivation from education, child sexual abuse, and other forms of exploitation.
Face the challenge together This pandemic is a universal crisis that can have lifelong repercussions for these children unless collaborative, concrete measures are taken soon.
Additional support and human resources are required to strengthen child protection structures and services. Subsequently, these entities should be treated as essential services for children and families in all crises.
The government needs to create solid and multi-sectorial protocols to legally bind duty-bearers to support and protect orphaned or abandoned children, together with stakeholders such as family and community members, the Panchayati Raj Institutes, and child protection structures. The Integrated Child Protection Scheme officials can be the core team to synergise different efforts across districts.
The state and national governments need to invest in more robust public-awareness campaigns with endorsements from influential people against various violations of children's rights.
The various centre and state-sponsored initiatives will help children who were orphaned due to Covid-19. However, investments are needed to strengthen and capacitate child-safety and protection institutions and child protection services to provide access to education, care, and safety to vulnerable children. With the support from NGOs and corporates, governments need to invest in community-based alternative care services such as kinship care, foster care, group foster care and sponsorship.
We have to recognise that India's future is only as bright as the present of its children. Therefore, the government and other stakeholders have to prioritise the needs and issues of children as part of the Covid-19 response actions. Otherwise, the shadows of this pandemic will continue to haunt us long after it has gone.
The writer is a Country Director of ChildFund in India.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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