Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Nikita Opal, Advisor - Legal and Partnership Group
The right to eat, play and study are the holy trinity of child rights. Amidst COVID-19 as most nations battle the virus for survival, other targets concerning child rights have taken a back seat. Attempts to streamline access to food, health and education have been laborious considering the stark socio-economic and digital divide.
On 11th March, the World Health Organisation declared the viral disease COVID-19 as a global pandemic. As a mitigative step, India is currently under the biggest lockdown with around 1.3 billion people asked to stay at home. With the count of infected patients increasing at an exponential rate, and an uninhibited susceptibility rate, you would think everyone is equally susceptible. However, the ones belonging to marginalised and vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds are inadvertently vulnerable and exposed to the harmful effects of the pandemic.
A recent data shows that Government helplines in India received 92,000 SOS calls on child abuse and violence in just 11 days after the lockdown, which only corroborates the aforementioned. Other than the pandemic itself, there are five factors by which, children will be affected -
1.Impact of the virus on child mortality and health
As per the National Family Health Survey, amidst the children under the age of five years 38% of children have stunted growth, and 36% are underweight (low weight for age). Around 18% are wasted (weight for height), and 59% are anaemic (when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin).
This abysmal state of nutrition amongst children due to malnourishment also raises associated health risk such as a weak immune system and increased propensity to contact infectious diseases. Considering this amidst COVID-19 renders these children more vulnerable.
2. Increasing impact of the virus due to lack of sanitation
As important as it is to stop the transmission of the virus, measures such as social distancing, quarantine and lockdown are primarily for the rich and urban class. The lower middle class in India, which depends on daily wages, and is placed in chawls and slums, find it difficult to practice social distancing let alone make ends meet.
As per the World Bank, the population living in slums is 24% out of the urban population in India. These informal housing structures, makeshift houses are usually cramped, and have common toilets. Housing around 64 million people, these are usually based around urban and semi-urban areas. owing to their lack of planning, the standard of sanitation in such areas is barely up to the mark. As these areas struggle to maintain the basic standard of hygiene and sanitation, these factors only act as a catalyst for the pandemic. Hence, even when social distancing is considered essential to stop the virus from spiralling, in congested settlements like slums, chawls actually increase the exposure of the inhabitants, almost forcing them to live in overcrowded and close proximity.
These closed spaces are a strack reality from the romanticised picture of home as a comfortable and safe space. The fate of these children due to the lockdown is carving a path towards a compromise in nutritional status, increased exploitation, and further distancing from mainstreaming in society due to the stigma associated to their living conditions.
3. The socio-economic impact due to the lockdown and quarantine
As per the World Bank data on poverty headcount ratio is 21.9% of India’s population is poor. With the government machinery failing to address human suffering in times of distress, there is an exodus of Indian migrant workers walking back home with their children. In a certain way the risk they face is bigger than the virus. Further an estimate of four million plus have no way of making a living since the lockdown. With the International Labour Organisation report describing the pandemic as “the worst global crisis since World War II”, lacking financial literacy and planning, accompanied with inadequate institutional mechanisms to combat these, there is little hope for the poverty index to improve which, in turn will also showcase a dip in the Global Hunger Index for India.
This in turn has displaced children from the Aangawadi schools and has also directly impacted their access to mid-day meals, with no alternative mechanisms to ensure access to food and education. This chronic food insecurity will only distance us from the SDG 2 of ending hunger by 2030.
4.The disconnect from education and learning crisis
The country wide shutdown of school , is drastically affecting children and will have a detrimental impact on their academic and psychological progress. Around 320 million students have been affected. Some initiatives by the Ministry of Human Resource Development have developed a few programmes to ensure that digital learning reaches out to children from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Portals for school education such as Diksha, e-PATHSHALA, and National Repository of Open Educational Resources have audios and videos available in multiple languages for all classes from I to XII. For higher education, Swayam, Swayam Prabha, and National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning, hope to end the educational void. While online mode of education is accompanied with the catchphrase ‘learn from the comforts of one’s home’, it unfairly assumes that there is no digital divide, and that homes are a repository of comfort, which is conducive for learning.
5. Threats towards a greater gender divide
The economic hardship experienced by the marginalised and vulnerable families are in a position to further alienate the interest of girls and women, amidst the pandemic. As females already stand exploited in the domestic and commercial sphere, the pandemic has only disrupted the progress made so far. This has also highlighted the risks towards child safety, the lockdowns, and quarantine have also heightened the risk of children being exploited and abused.
The situation paints an abysmal picture however; amidst this pandemic the idea is to mitigate the impact of the pandemic by expanding the social protection programmes and engaging with key stakeholders. It is also vital to highlight that figures and statistical data often paint a one-dimensional picture, and the reality is found out by working on field. Keeping this in mind, I have consulted social workers from Prayas Juvenile Aid Society sand socio legal experts from Sanshodhan, organisations that primarily deal with rights and engage in humanitarian work on the field. Below mentioned, are a few recommendations and comments from them on their experience of field work during the pandemic.
Access to information about COVID-19 in a child friendly manner- Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of Child states that children shall have the right to and freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. This shall be provided by oral, written in print/in the form of art/or through any other media of a child’s choice. So far the Indian Government has created a dashboard dedicated for COVID-19. Though the website deals with infographics and visuals, child friendly content is still amiss amidst the sea of information.
Local Schools/ Aanganwadi / local area participation- In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, author Bertrand Russell, mentions that children require conditions of space and light and diet which are impossible in a wage earner’s home, and the same can be provided in a nursery school, or community space. If localities, Aanganwadis, and local schools can come together and cater to kids in small groups with demarcated areas for these children. Hence, they will have some form of continuation of formal education.
Child Safety Network- Inter departmental coordination is another vital aspect that needs to be worked upon. District Child Protection Units, Child Care Institutions (CCI’s) and local schools together form a network of protection, which look after the best interest of the child. The paucity of funds in CCI’s in Bihar, which are on the verge of closure due to the pandemic highlight the mismanagement of funds.
Authentic data-Our data with regard to children, need to be upto date to ensure adequate funds and resources for the vulnerable. Secondary attention should also be given to data concerning parents and caregivers to ensure child safety and security. This dual mechanism can help create a safety network for children on field, or atleast a start to combat both the infection itself and it’s cascading effects.
Change in the Integrated Child Protection Scheme budget- Considering the sanitation and hygiene need for children, an increase in the ICPS funds to meet the requirement of soaps alcohol based sanitisers is essential. This can also be covered by the flexi fund provision introduced by the Ministry of Women and Child Development with the objective to meet local needs and requirements, and also be used for mitigation and restoration activities in times of natural calamities. So far, there is no news from the State Governments with regard to the disbursement or utilisation of such funds.
Overworked social workers with no institutional backing- The current unplanned lockdown has left the poor to fend for themselves. Amidst this chaos most NGO’s on field are interacting with communities are facing the stern hand of the state and challenges on field. The pressure to cope within limited resources and serve the masses, has also caused a few instances of lynchinng of members of NGO who often get surrounded by people seeking food and other essentials. This has also put pressure on social workers who seek to identify people in the community before distributing essentials so that the most vulnerable and deserving are benefitted first. This has also called for greater coordination with local police to have a better understanding of working side by side and use their knowledge of the locality to serve the ones who need assistance the most.
The entire gamut of legal framework comes down to four core principles whilst dealing with children. That is to focus on the best interest of children, the right to eat, play and study. The pandemic has highlighted that it can affect anyone, but not always equally and the longer it endures, the more inequalities will deepen. Hence, to avoid deepening this void we need creative solutions and out of box thinking to protect and nurture the best interest of children.
For this article, the author gathered first hand interviews from, Prayas Juvenile Aid Society, an organization dealing with juvenile justice and child protection, head office based in New Delhi, where she spoke to social worker Akhil Dhobal (http://www.prayaschildren.org) and Sanshodhan, an organization dealing with rights based and legal aid work, head office based in New Delhi, where she spoke to lawyers Vikas Kumar and Dharani S. (https://sanshodhan.org)
Nikita Opal, is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences where she pursued her LL.M in Access to Justice. She is a human rights defender and is actively working in the area of rights and development. She is currently enrolled as a Ph.D student in the Gujarat Forensic Science University, Gandhinagar, where she researches on restorative justice processes for children in conflict with law. She is interested in understanding how the criminal justice system can be made more accessible and how the correctional facilities can be more reform oriented.