Disasters and crises have had many less highlighted consequences on vulnerable sub-groups, including those often overlooked, such as adolescents and youth. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. While understandably the nation is engaged in fighting a pandemic of huge proportions, this relatively healthy and safe sub-population’s needs may not appear to warrant immediate attention. Nevertheless, as we look ahead to the post-lockdown period and beyond, the ways in which the pandemic may have affected our 365 million plus adolescents and youth, and their needs in the upcoming months and years, must be considered. After all, what happens to this generation affects not only their health and well-being in adolescence, but also their health and well-being as adults, and that of the next generation.
There is limited research on the situation and needs of adolescents in disasters and crises that can guide how we respond to concerns surrounding this group today as well. But, even during the lockdown, several organisations have initiated action for young people. Insights from some of these were reflected in a recent webinar hosted by the 10to19 Dasra Adolescent Collaborative.
Access to Education
High on the list of what needs to be addressed for young people is education. Girls attending the webinar passionately described their concerns about their education. While well-off urban schools have transitioned into online classrooms, these facilities are not available universally. Nor is this a simple transition to make. A recent state-representative survey of adolescents confirmed that only five percent live in a household that owns a computer. The same survey found that few adolescents aged 10-14 own a mobile phone (1-6 percent), 18 percent of unmarried girls aged 15-21 own a mobile phone and that it is far from universal even among boys aged 15-21 (64 percent).
While many other adolescents do have access, if needed, to a family member’s phone, it may not be possible for them to access these devices for prolonged durations. And, if there are two or more children at home, accessing the phone may prove near impossible.
Uninterrupted internet access is also uncertain. Anxieties about falling back on schooling and the consequences of this for their aspirations and futures are real fears. And disparities between the haves and the have-nots will widen. Even more disturbing, previous work has highlighted that in situations of disaster and crisis, there is an increase in school dropout. There is therefore a real fear that the longer schools remain closed, the greater are the chances that girls (and some boys) will drop out or be made to drop out when they reopen. Not being in school also means no midday meal, no weekly iron and folic acid supplementation, no sanitary napkin distribution, and no interaction with friends.
Child marriage and other forms of violence
Also widely observed in disaster and crisis situations is a spike in child marriage. This practice is undertaken not only because parental concerns about their daughters’ security increase in difficult times, but also because smaller dowries are demanded for younger girls, and marriage expenses can be minimised by marrying off all the daughters of the family together, in a single ceremony, irrespective of their age. This is another potentially disastrous fallout of the pandemic and could hurt the huge advances India has made over the last decade in reducing child marriage.
Domestic violence has spiraled since the lockdown, as has been observed the world over. India has many helplines devoted to addressing the needs of women who face or fear physical and sexual violence and controlling and threatening behaviour of their husbands. According to reports, girls have also suffered. For one, violence against them has likely accelerated, and second, they may be more closely exposed to witnessing violence—their fathers beating or abusing their mothers. These experiences result in helplessness, anxiety, and fear that can have a lifelong impact on their submission to violence in their adulthood. And while helplines are available, many girls and young women may not have sufficient privacy away from the perpetrator to reach helplines. This calls for more anonymous forms of communication, such as, messaging options, and more proactive monitoring by frontline workers making house-to-house visits.
Misuse of social media by the young is exacerbated in times of lockdown, especially among economically advantaged young people who have their own devices. The lockdown has provided an opportunity for cyber violence committed by the young, as witnessed in the #boislockerroom incident. Such incidents not only have lasting effects on girls’ mental health and future aspirations, but may also spell disaster for the futures of the perpetrators of these crimes. Online classes present a fine opportunity to encourage discussion on equitable gender relations, sexuality education, and legal penalties for violation. Parents must play their part too, not dismissing this behaviour with a ‘boys will be boys’ shrug, but ensuring communication about these matters with their sons and daughters, and if necessary, supervising their internet use.
Access to Health Services
Health services and entitlements are also affected. Many at the webinar mentioned the lack of sanitary napkins, resulting in them having to purchase these (if available) from the market, or reverting to practices such as use of cloth. Others mentioned the unavailability, more generally, of other health-promoting supplies and services—iron and folic acid distribution, pregnancy-related care, contraceptive supplies, and abortion services.
A recent telephone interview survey undertaken by the Population Council corroborated this perception, with considerable proportions of young women reached reporting a need for antenatal care, immunisation, and contraception. Frontline workers are no doubt overwhelmed by COVID-19 related duties, but efforts are needed to minimise stockouts and consider out-of-the-box ways of delivering sanitary napkins, contraceptives, and other essential supplies. Social marketing, providing these supplies at local kirana shops, and distributing health kits with essential supplies may be options to consider.
However, pregnancy- and newborn-related services for all, especially for first-time pregnant women and first-time mothers cannot be compromised. Face-to-face contact is essential in delivering these services, and frontline workers must develop a system through which those falling into these categories are identified, and services are delivered to them in a timely way.
Mental health is also affected, as cautioned in a recent review in the Lancet and corroborated in a survey conducted by Young Minds. In India, the Population Council telephone survey found significantly more young women reporting symptoms reflecting depression and anxiety in the lockdown period than before. While the national health programme for adolescents makes a counsellor available at every district and sub-district Adolescent Friendly Health Clinic, these counsellors need to use more pro-active measures to reach and counsel adolescents in the areas they serve.
Don’t forget the Parents!
The need to engage parents in ensuring the well-being of their children and adolescents cannot be emphasised enough. “Don’t forget the parents!” was a strongly expressed insight articulated at the webinar. Moreover, the limited communication and interaction between parents and children in India has been substantiated through research as well. Indeed, there is an enormous need to engage parents in empowering their daughters and sons to transition safely through the pandemic and lockdown and minimise adverse consequences.
Unfortunately, parenting in much of India has not traditionally encouraged openness about fears and aspirations, nor does it acknowledge adolescents’ voice in making life choices, and yet this crisis calls for efforts to enable parents to support their children and encourage them to articulate their anxieties and fears. The #boislockerroom incident also highlights the need for far more parental engagement in socialising their sons and daughters, including in times of crisis. While this requires far more attention to programming that addresses awareness about parenting in the long run, in the immediate future, COVID-19-related messaging needs to be expanded to include counselling messages on talking to children and providing helpline numbers through which to seek help.
While many unmet needs have been thus articulated, encouraging signs of the resilience of the young and innovative action that some have taken despite the lockdown are apparent. Girls accompany frontline workers in some areas, delivering messages of safety and allaying fears. They have taken the initiative to prepare face masks for their family and neighbours. Girls have created WhatsApp groups through which information promoting health and safety measures is shared, concerns can be raised, and violence can be reported.
The hitherto sparse evidence documenting consequences of crises and disasters for young people has hampered our understanding of, and preparedness for, an adequate response to the COVID-19 crisis. Far more investment is required in research that tracks and assesses the multiplicity of consequences described here, so that an evidence-informed response may be generated.
Addressing the unmet needs of the young is a priority. We cannot let the huge advances we have made thus far in accelerating girls’ and boys’ education, delaying child marriage, addressing sexual and reproductive health needs, and building agency, be dissipated.
(Author is Director at Aksha Centre for Equity and Wellbeing. She is a demographer and social scientist. Views are personal. The piece was first published on India Development Review)