As India opens up gradually after the COVID-19 lockdown, a refrain we keep hearing is that most public spaces disallow the elderly and young children. However, while we are talking about keeping children safe from the coronavirus, there are a myriad of other ways in which their well-being and safety can be affected as fallouts of the pandemic.
In a webinar on Friday which launched ‘Rights of Children in Times of COVID-19: A Policy Brief’, a document prepared by several networks and alliances working towards child rights, safety and welfare, stakeholders talked about the ways in which children’s right to safety, education, food, nutrition, access to justice, and much more, have been put in jeopardy. And unless we intervene now, these will leave a lasting impact on children that could last years, or even be intergenerational, panellists said.
For example, in a video that highlighted children’s voices at the beginning of the webinar, a number of children talked about the issues they were facing. While some talked about how their shanties had been destroyed and they had to relocate from cities or states, losing access to education, some girl children pointed out how they couldn’t take online classes because their brother or father kept the smartphone with them and expected the girls to do housework. At children’s shelter homes, kids were found to be distressed, unsure of when they’ll be able to go home.
“COVID-19 is not just a health crisis, but a socioeconomic crisis of massive proportions,” stated Swagata Raha, a legal researcher.
Among the notable persons in the webinar were former Supreme Court judges, Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, both of whom appreciated the policy brief and the intersectional approach it had taken to child rights. The panellists, which included people who have put together the policy brief, said that it has already been shared with Union ministries, and will be taken to state governments as well.
The policy brief can be accessed here.
Yasmin Haque, the representative of UNICEF, explained that the environment that children need to develop and grow into optimal citizens has been impacted because of the pandemic. The closure of schools, limited access to friends and spaces to grow and socialise have not boded well for children. “The consequences are going to be felt for years if we don’t take action now,” she said.
The panellists pointed out that the loss of social contact and isolation have taken their toll on children, especially adolescents who need a lot of support. This is why the closure of schools needs to be seen not just as a blow to education, but also as a loss of social, and in many cases, a safe space, said Sharmila Bhagat of Ankur Society for Alternatives in Education.
Sharmila also explained that right to education is impacted not just because of the digital divide, but also because of migration and job losses of parents.
“It’s easy for us to do webinars and talk about smartphones. But can all parents afford them [for online classes]? Even if a [disadvantaged] family has it, the phone may be with the father, who is now unemployed and only has the phone for entertainment. And if there are two children, how will they share the phone for online classes? It’s a very urban demand,” argued Justice Deepak.
Sharmila pointed out that school dropouts are likely to increase due to these factors unless steps are taken. “The focus needs to be on enrolment and retention of children in schools, with special focus on the children of migrant workers who have gone back to native places. We need to question how to make digital education more inclusive. And we have to understand that this [pandemic] is a major life event for them, and need to give them the space to articulate this experience, to give it perspective and chronicle it in their own language as their voice in the time to come,” Sharmila said.
The closure of schools has also impacted nutrition for some children. Sumitra Mishra, a panellist, pointed out that it has also resulted in the ceasing of mid-day meals – the one hot meal that children were getting in the day at schools.
To address the far-reaching impact on children’s nutrition due to the pandemic, Sumitra said that the policy brief recommends that that we need to “urgently restart mid-day meal schemes, that include all children in the vicinity, not just those enrolled in the school.” She added that Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) under the Women and Child Development Ministry should be declared essential service and restart growth monitoring, immunisation and regular and sufficient quantities of supplementary nutrition, especially for pregnant and lactating mothers, and children below three years of age, and cooked meals for all children.
“It must come with adequate training and support for ICDS workers to maintain [COVID-19] safety protocols,” Sumitra added.
There have been several concerns raised about a possible rise in child abuse and exploitation due to lockdown measures, and children being unable to go to other safe spaces. Bharti Ali, co-founder of HAQ Centre for Child Rights, pointed out that when we think of protecting children from abuse and violence, we also need to think of children in need of care and protection as well as children in conflict with law.
Panellists said that in some cases, the pandemic has resulted in extended institutionalisation for some children, while in others, children have been released without preparation or explanation from the shelters, and without ensuring that they are safe and can be cared for in their homes.
One of the recommendations, Bharti said, is also to ensure that child care institutions in the future have quarantine centres to receive and quarantine new children and then allow them to mingle with others.
The brief states a host of measures – from educating and building forums for parents, caregivers and children, to strengthening existing reporting measures like Childline 1098 and police helplines, and making online reporting mechanisms child-friendly. “Information about the reporting system and recourse available for violence against children should be publicised on various mediums such as TV, radio, newspapers and social media", the policy brief adds.
The panellists also talked about the need to protect and reach out to vulnerable groups of children like those with disability and transgender children. There is a need to implement all of the above measures in a decentralised manner, right from the gram panchayat level.
They also focused on the need for data on how COVID-19 is impacting different aspects of children’s lives. Justice Lokur stressed on the need for the government to collate this data and make it public so that civil society can work with it, and come up with appropriate recommendations.