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October 20, 2020 Tuesday 11:08:47 AM IST

Child Rights During Lockdowns

Health Monitor

The nation is at a standstill - families are huddled indoors, schools are shut and anxiety and frustration levels are at peak. As COVID -19 has added insult to the injuries of many children, they must become our priority while we respond to the pandemic. There is a grave need to investigate as to what happens to child abuse rates in India's lockdown and if we are doing enough to protect child rights in this tough, new situation.  Children are the future of our society and child abuse is extremely dangerous as it has the potential to traumatize an entire generation, and may even affect the next generation. While the medical and economic consequences of COVID -19 are critical and well known, Childline workers and mental health professionals keep on warning us about the dangers that threaten the psychological and emotional wellness of our children. In order to fight this pandemic and its ill-effects, our children will have to be prepared and strengthened. The emotional and mental well-being of our children will determine their ability to face life’s harsh realities, for the rest of their lives. This is especially so for children regardless of where they are now– in their families, in isolation facilities, in child care institutions, or in foster care. A recent study by UNICEF indicates that more than 120 crore children world-wide, live malnourished, deprived of basic needs, education, etc.

Before delving into the intricacies of this discussion, it is essential to understand the meaning of ‘child abuse’ in a holistic manner. According to the WHO definition, ‘‘Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power’’(WHO 1999). Home is not always a safe space, and reports of spikes in domestic violence helplines, bring more sobering news. The Childline India helpline received 50 percent more calls than usual during the first 11 days of COVID -19 lockdown in India (March 20 - 31, 2020). From these helpline calls, the Childline workers conducted 4800 interventions where they physically went to the child in need. Out of this, 30 percent were related to protection from abuse (about 1400 cases). All forms of violence, abuse, and exploitation have long-lasting consequences on children’s lives. Let us take a quick look at the potential abusive situations that our children may have to go through during this pandemic.

·Child Abuse and Exploitation – COVID-19 has led to an increasing number of children being subjected to abuse and exploitation both within and outside their homes. The Government-run helpline, Childline India reported 92,000 distress calls on child abuse and violence in the first 11 days of the nation-wide lockdown. The current crisis may lead to increased incidents of child abuse, child marriage, and child trafficking; leaving children who do not have access to safe reporting mechanisms – helpless. The situation becomes more aggravated when the abuser is one of the adults in charge. Studies point out that 93 percent of abuse happens by someone known to the child. This is a terrifying number for the lockdown period when children are required to be indoors and in social distancing mode.

·Mental health: Mental health is key to the development of children. Early closure of schools and the uncertainty around its reopening can have an adverse impact on the mental health of children who may already be under stress due to the pandemic. The uncertainty around examinations in schools has also exacerbated the anxieties of children. Moreover, as parents lose their jobs and with increased cases of domestic violence, children may find themselves in tense environments at home affecting their mental and emotional well-being.

·Adequate nutrition and health care:  The lockdown in India stopped many essential childcare services, thus denying children basic entitlements such as nutrition and immunization service and putting them at risk of contracting COVID -19. The hindered access to daily mid-day meal during the lockdown, coupled with rising hunger and poverty, will further decline children’s access to nutrition and have an adverse effect on their growth.

·Access to Education:  When various states ordered schools to shut down, they allowed private institutions to proceed with online learning.  While children from more privileged backgrounds had access to some form of learning during this period, children from rural areas, the urban poor, and especially those who come from marginalized backgrounds, did not have access to online connectivity or electronic gadgets, leading to a learning gap.

·Children of migrant workers – According to the Census 2011, more than 42.7 million children in India were out of school. Loss of livelihood and poverty from COVID -19 and the lockdown measures are likely to put young children of migrant workers – many of whom depend on the remittances from their migrant parents – at further risk of dropping out of school.

·Culture of Discrimination and Stigma: Physical distancing norms and practices, if not understood from a purely health perspective, can in the long run lead to discriminatory practices.  In a country like India, where caste-based discrimination is commonplace, this may further reinforce practices of discrimination and untouchability.

·Online Safety: As classrooms shift online and children are regularly engaged with online tools and resources, including gaming and websites used for entertainment and leisure, online abuse are emerging as a potential risk. State and private educational institutions have not yet conducted an effective analysis of the impact of online education on children’s safety as well as its mental and behavioral impact that may arise in terms of lack of social skills, addiction to surfing, etc.

·Disproportionate Impact on Dalits, Minorities, and Adivasis – While children as a group are at higher risk during the pandemic, historic injustices of poverty, caste discrimination, and cultural beliefs exacerbate the vulnerability of the children of marginalized communities such as Dalits, Minorities, and Adivasis. Academics and scholars have estimated that most of the migrant workers, for instance, are Dalits and Adivasis who left their homes to escape the inequalities, atrocities, and violence. With school closures, inaccessible online education, and rising economic hardships, children of such communities stand to bear the brunt of the adverse consequences, further pushing them back.

Preventive Steps:

Increase Awareness about Child Rights.

It is absolutely essential to creating awareness about child rights and mental health within society. Moreover, a healthy discussion must be initiated over social media platforms to remove all the misconceptions prevailing over these issues amidst society. Strong deterrence is needed through online, government-approved videos, online campaigns to educate children and parents, and cyber protection trackers. The situation is aggravated by children’s lack of access to child care organizations and the inability to connect with them from a safe space as the abuser is around them. One solution to this problem is alerting the police during their check-ins and the volunteers during their distribution of food items to be on the lookout for children who are in distress. Teaching children about personal safety from a young age provides them with knowledge and skills to prevent child sexual abuse and seek support in case of any violations. With the possibility of a severe economic recession in the near future, children are extremely susceptible to child trafficking, child labour, and slavery. The government needs to ensure that the existing laws i.e. Article 24 of the Indian Constitution and The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 are strictly enforced as well as when schools finally reopen, any potential dropouts are investigated and a proper record of the same is maintained and followed up in earnest.

Improve Child Healthcare Services.

Basic child care services related to immunization, nutrition, and the mid-day meal system must be restored. Adequate care and health care services must be provided to children with mental and physical disabilities and children with terminal illnesses. Investment in the mental health infrastructure in India must be an absolute priority as mental health issues in adolescents often manifest in delinquent behaviour in the later years.  The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 guarantees every person access to healthcare and treatments by the government in the spirit of the vision of ‘healthcare for all by 2027’. Chapter V of the Act lays down special provisions under Section 18(4) (e) for child healthcare services.

Online Education:

Ensure universal and equitable access to the internet to every child in the country

Online learning must not be instituted in schools unless every child has access to online service facilities

Conduct a complete evaluation of the impact of online learning on students and their safety after instituting it in schools.

Track Out-of-School Children

Track out-of-school children to ensure they are safe from abuse, trafficking, forced labour, and exploitation.

Ensure children of migrant families are enrolled in schools.

Ensure school attendance is not made mandatory.

Young leaders like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thurnberg have time and again shown us that the younger generation can make a difference through the might of their will power. All they need is someone to listen to their voices. They are the most vulnerable section of society but at the same time, they the most precious asset. It is high time we give our children the care they deserve and the protection they need.

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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