India has the largest child population in the world, with 472 million children, many of whom are experiencing the worst fall out of the pandemic as they are from marginalized sections of society.
Homes are not necessarily the safest spaces for everyone uniformly, especially for children living in already unsafe and abusive households. The Ministry of Women and Child Welfare released a report in the year 2007 and it notes that over 68.99% of our children had experienced some form of physical abuse; 88.6% of them were abused by their own parents.
The government's helpline for children (1098) received 4.6 lakh calls during the first phase of the nationwide lockdown, 30 percent of these required COVID-19-related intervention. The majority of such interventions were pleas for food. 9,385 of these calls were cries for help from children who were being subject to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or being trafficked or abandoned. With the closing down of schools, many children are unable to interact with friends and teachers. Usually, teachers are the first to recognise signs of a child suffering abuse. Many NGOs have received SOS calls from children for food and livelihood support. In the Dharavi slums, many children have lost both or one of their parents to the pandemic and they may need institutional care.
On April 18, Jamlo Madkami, a 12-year-old plantation labourer, died after walking for three days from Telegana to Chhattisgarh, her home state. The 150-km walk left her dehydrated and fatigued. Post-lockdown predictions are bleak with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicting 400 million people in India will fall deeper into the abyss of poverty. Understandably, this will have a humongous impact on children in terms of their future and choices.
Our bitter experience is that whenever adults face situations of unemployment or under-employment, the mantle of earning to sustain the family is dutifully passed on to children. The present number of children engaged in labour, which is 33 million, could significantly increase. The slow shift to digital education platforms may not augur well for underprivileged children, as they do not have access to technology to take up online arrangements of classes or interact with their classmates. This will lead directly to an increase of school dropout rates. Getting children back into classrooms after a long absence will surely be a huge challenge.
A couple on a 750-km bicycle journey from Lucknow to Chhattisgarh were killed in a road accident. Their two children, Chandni (3 years) and Vipin (1 yr) who were travelling with them survived. These children are now being looked after by relatives already under financial duress. Our experience shows us that in cases like this, child Traffickers and labour recruiters can exploit the situation by positioning themselves to vulnerable families as providers of cash and kind to help families tide over the crisis and then taking away children to fulfil the debt.
So the government needs to add to its relief package an announcement of a Special Relief Package for all children in difficult circumstances due to COVID-19 which builds on existing mechanisms at the central and state levels. To ensure the well-being of children in this crisis, the package should focus on child protection, child nutrition and education. Governments must also invest in other forms of social protection, fiscal policies, employment and labour market interventions to support families.
(Joseph Wesley is Head - Anti-Child Trafficking Program, World Vision India. He is based in Kolkata.)
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