Nelson Mandela had once said, ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ If this is true, then what does the death of 12-year-old migrant child labourer, Jamlo Makdam, who passed away from dehydration and fatigue, after walking 150 km to return to her home during COVID-19 lockdown say about the ‘soul of our society’?
What does it ‘reveal about our society’ when the government's helpline for children (1098) receives 4.6 lakh calls during the first phase of a nationwide lockdown, 30 per cent of which requires COVID-19 related intervention? Majority of such interventions were simply pleas for food. However, 9,385 of these calls were cries for help from children who were being subjected to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or being trafficked, or abandoned.
How does it reflect on us, when amid a health crisis that has killed 2,415, and affected 74,480 people in India, the rate of online child pornography consumption shoots up by 95 per cent?
Children, especially from marginalized and invisible sections of the society, like the ones who live in child care institutions (CCIs), observation homes, as well as street children and child labourers, have been the silent collateral victims of the lockdown, implemented on March 24, and subsequently extended, to curb the spread of coronavirus.
So far, children have been comparatively less affected by COVID-19. But, that doesn’t mean they are ‘less vulnerable’. According to an estimate published in early April by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 8.6 per cent of COVID-19 positive cases in India are individuals within the age group of 0-20 years.
In Maharashtra, which has recorded the highest number of cases so far, a report published by the Medical Education and Drugs Department (MEDD) on 12 May, states that 770 kids below the age of 10 have the virus. In the age group of 10 years to 20 years, the report says that there are 1,579 cases in the state. There are children, especially infants, who have lost their lives to the virus in states of Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana and others.
“We are constantly saying that children are less vulnerable to this infection which is problematic. In some ways, what we are doing is, we are negating the possibility of children being infected, which is obviously not true,” said Anindit Roy Chowdhury, Director of Programmes, at Save The Children.
“One of the facts that we know about COVID-19 is that individuals who are malnourished are susceptible. Unfortunately, the group of children who come from vulnerable backgrounds -- like those who are orphans, or poor -- are mostly malnourished. So, the chances of them being affected by the virus are much higher.” he added.
However, the virus is of least concern for most child rights activists including Roy Chowdhury, who fears that this pandemic may result in a hidden child rights crisis.
'Orphans’ in their own homes
In India, according to Juvenile Justice Care And Protection of Children Act, children who are placed under the care and protection of the state are not just those who do not have any parents, guardians or extended families, but also those kids whose parents are found incapable of providing for them, mostly due to their socio-economic conditions.
According to a report published in 2019 by the Jena Committee on Child Care Institutions (CCIs), there are as many as 1.8 lakh children from such poor vulnerable backgrounds living in Child Care Institutions (during the period of 2016-2017) across India. When the COVID-19 lockdown happened in March this year, many such children found themselves back home, because some CCIs were asked by the local authorities to do so.
*Newton, the founder of one such Child Care Institution (CCI) in Tamil Nadu told News18 that, “A total of 90 children from our CCI were sent to their respective homes according to the orders of local authorities.”
Newton’s CCI is one of the 17 CCIs supported by Miracle Foundation, an international NGO that works with orphans, and semi-orphan children. “Out of the 17 CCIs we support almost 400 kids went back.” pointed out Nivedita Dasgupta, India Country Head, Miracle Foundation (India).
“However, after they returned to their respective homes we immediately started getting feedback from the children that they don't have anything to eat. Parents of such kids are generally daily wage workers, and many of them had lost their jobs during the crisis,” she added. Miracle Foundation India gathered bank account details of such families and wired them money for necessities, however, children who lived in the interior ‘tribal regions’ were hard to reach, said Dasgupta.
In the last couple of years, the government of India had been embracing the ‘global trend’ of rehabilitating such kids into their own homes, by empowering poor households so that they can provide for their own kids. However, that requires due process, and the hurried return of the children due to lockdown when parents don’t even have jobs do not make these homes conducive places for kids.
Everyone should be with their families during hard times, perhaps that’s the reason why many parent(s)/guardians of these children took them back, despite obvious problems in their own homes, said Dasgupata. However, not every child is happy to be back home. D a student of standard 9, who lives in a CCI in Tamil Nadu told News18 that he misses his CCI friends, and can’t wait to get back after lockdown. “My mother is very anxious and frustrated because she lost her job. There are so many of us to feed and cook for that it makes her worried and irritated,” he said.
S’s mother took her back too when the lockdown happened. Her father is a drug addict and doesn’t live with her mother, who is a cotton mill worker in Tamil Nadu and has received no salary since April. “My mother and grandmother live in a rented house, and they are very worried that they don’t have money to pay the rent. On top of that, there are also electricity bills as well.” S told News18.
S, however, has bigger worries, she says. She is a class topper, and her class 10 exams have been pushed due to the lockdown. “ With each passing day, I feel like I am losing momentum. I feel like I’m forgetting everything I have learned,” she revealed.
Falling back, staying back
S isn’t the only one losing time and momentum. Thousands of children who are still in CCIs are losing out too. “Online learning is a challenge for them because most shelter homes don't even have a computer or an internet connection,” said Dr Prahalathan, co-founder of Bhumi, a volunteer organization that works with 25,000 children across the country.
“If the school session gets delayed, private schools have digital learning for their kids, but sometimes providing even one computer in a CCI is challenging. So, if there are 50 or 70 kids in one CII, it is going to be really tough to teach them all. Most of these children also don’t have smartphones, so personalised education is also not possible.” he added.
Children from extremely poor households often choose CCIs over their own homes because these places at least guarantee meals, and shelter, which many of their homes cannot provide. But, just because they are marginally better places to live, doesn’t always make them a healthy space for living, especially during a lockdown, when everyone has to spend all their time together, confined in small spaces.
“There are few large CCIs but most shelter homes are small. In such shelter homes staying cooped up inside all day and night must be hard for children,” said Dr Prahalathan. He also pointed out that the added stress and uncertainty of the crisis can also cause or aggravate mental health issues among such children.
“80% CCIs we work with have not sent children home as advised by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) through its notification dated 29 March. This, however, differs from state to state.” pointed out Satyajeet Mazumdar, Head of Advocacy at Catalysts for Social Action which works with 80 CCIs in Maharashtra, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.
CCIs, where children are currently staying, are experiencing problems of their own. "NGO implemented programs have been paused. CCIs are understaffed as employees who live outside premises cannot come,” he added. However, that is hardly the worst thing that the CCI owners and managers are worried about. Only about 40% CCIs receive ICPS funding, while others depend heavily on local donors which may result in a fund crunch in the next 3-6 months, he said.
Mazumdar also explained that those CCI kids who turn 18 this year will be deinstitutionalized. They will have a tough fight ahead. They may have to settle for cheap manual labour jobs, instead of getting vocational training, as in a post-COVID-19 world, the opportunities for jobs will shrink considerably.
“Children are currently at high risk of being separated from their families and primary caregivers due to various reasons like death, disability or illness. If one or the other is isolated for quarantine, or the child is abandoned after they have received treatment or have been quarantined, in such cases, children are at increased risk of being placed in care, including residential institutions.” pointed out Soledad Herrero, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF (India). This means that the population of CCIs are also likely to increase. Post pandemic too, when many families will be too vulnerable to support their children they might hand the kids over to the CCIs.
Apart from children at CCIs, minors who lived in observational homes have also been asked to return to their families, pointed out Herrero, however, that rehabilitation too has been riddled with infrastructural challenges.
“The Supreme Court judgment in re Contagion of COVID 19 Virus in Children Protection Homes, Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No.4 of 2020), ordered that children should be released after completing due diligence from Observation Homes so that they can return to their families. As per the guidance from the Supreme Court efforts are being made in all states to support the release of children in detention on bail through appropriate procedures,” said Herrero. A monitoring system to track these children and keep a tab on their wellbeing has also been put in place by the government. However, there have been challenges in communication and access to phones, she added.
While children in CCIs at least have meals and shelter at this point there are thousands of street kids without any form of support in India currently. Street children are often referred to as ‘hidden children’ because they are not counted in the census, and very few official data or literature exists on them. A survey conducted by Save The Children says there are about 2 million of them, although Child Rights activists claim that the numbers are much higher than that and with the current pandemic, it might further increase. Most of them don’t even have a national identity -- an Aadhaar or a voter ID card.
"We all know the moment people become invisible, their vulnerability increases considerably. Street children are anyways exploited in normal times, but now the worry is that these children are also probably being sexually exploited and facing abuse because they are not visible anymore. However, we have no way of knowing. ” said Anindit Roy Chowdhury, Head of Programmes at Save The Children.
He pointed out that the moment these children are alone with no access to telephone, or money, they become very obvious targets. “A smaller bunch among these street children are girl children who are likely to be forced into prostitution. There will be another group that is likely to be trafficked,” he explained.
Apart from them, in various factories and agricultural fields, there are children who are currently stuck. “With no business happening in such factories, it is hard to say if these child labourers are even being fed,” said Roy Chowdhury. Child labour is illegal in India, so the employers cannot access government help, and the well-being of these children is currently a matter of grave concern. According to the 2011 census, there are 10 million child labourers in India, and it is likely to increase given that many families will be pushed to extreme poverty due to the pandemic.
So far, neither the government nor the NGOs know for sure where the majority of these street children are, or how many child labourers are stuck in factories. It is estimated that some of them were migrant workers’ kids and are currently walking home, others who are connected to some NGOs support system, have been put into government shelters.
Almost a month into the lockdown NCPCR announced that they would make a database of such children so that they can be linked to government schemes such as BPL cards, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna etcetera. While it is good news, they will in all likelihood face many challenges during this lockdown to create such a database.
NCPCR is trying to anticipate new problems that vulnerable children would face once the lockdown is over. Families may sell their girl children out of abject poverty or coerce them into child marriages, traffickers will obviously try to utilise this crisis and trafficking rates are likely to go up, as it does after any kind of disaster.
There have already been reports of child marriages in Rajasthan. Child abuse has increased considerably as helpline calls indicate, and it is unlikely to reduce with children being locked up in their homes with their perpetrators.
Children are generally the most vulnerable in any crisis because they do not have any representation or voice in the polity. So, it should be the government's prerogative to include them in COVID-19 related policies.
“While some CWC members are working, the Children protection workforce of the government must be back in full action despite the lockdown. They should be given proper PPEs so that they can provide the support that children need so urgently,” said Roy Chowdhury. He also added that it is very important for NGOs that work with such children to be back on the ground, for which the government should give permissions, as and when needed.
Starvation is a reality many are facing now, and a big reason for it might also be that the Public Distribution System (PDS) doesn’t reach everyone. So, NGOs must help the PDS reach the last mile.
Apart from that, actions should be taken to ensure the well-being of child labourers. Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi recently suggested an amnesty deal between the government and employers of child labourers. While that may not be the best solution, it is urgent and necessary to pay attention to this issue and find ways to help the children.
The main focus of law enforcement officials during the lockdown has been to maintain the lockdown, but that is not their only responsibility. They should also look into child protection needs because now kids who are out on the street are truly vulnerable.
“Children may not have been the face of the pandemic, but they are one of the worst affected, especially those already vulnerable. With its impact on their health, learning, mental well – being, the pandemic could become a child rights crisis. A whole society approach is needed so that children do not become its worst victims.” added Soledad Herrero, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF (India).
*Few names have been changed in the article to protect the identity of the individuals.