Impact of pandemic on children

  • According to the Census 2011, more than 42.7 million children in India are already out of school. Loss of livelihood and poverty from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures is 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. This may force many children into the labour market to supplement the family income or barely survive.
  • 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.
  • Loss of livelihood and economic hardships is likely to push more children out of schools and force them into child labour, further exposing them to sexual and physical abuse. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), children and more specifically girls are more likely to be burdened with household responsibilities. School closures may aggravate this exploitation as is evident from the Ebola crisis in West Africa that witnessed spikes in child labour, neglect, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancies.
  • 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. Incidences of child marriage during the lockdown have already been reported in certain states.
  • The lockdown in India stopped many essential childcare services, thus denying children basic entitlements such as nutrition and immunizationservice and putting them at risk of contracting COVID-19. The hindered access to daily mid-day meals as exposed 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. India’s current standing in relation to hunger is dismal, ranking 102 out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index.
  • According to UNICEF, lockdown measures may aggravate the vulnerability of children to COVID-19 and/or other diseases as well as hamper their development and learning. Children living in various kinds of government institutions such as shelter homes, observation homes, etc, slums, informal settlements and inadequate housing are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • 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 childrenwho may already be under stress due to the pandemic. The uncertainty around examinations in schools has also exacerbated the anxieties of children.
  • According to a brief survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society, mental health issues have risen by 20% affecting almost 1 in 5 Indians post the lockdown. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has acknowledged that the outbreak of COVID-19 has adverse effects on the mental health of children as they grapple anxiety, nervousness and stress.  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.
  • Parental loss can have devastating effects on children’s social, emotional and cognitive growth.
  • It adversely affects their mental health, inducing anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances and often worsens a family’s economic status, resulting in children’s poorer academic performance and school drop-outs.
  • There is a greater risk of substance abuse among children who drop out of school and adolescents who lose parents also display more sexually risky behaviours.
  • Activists said other complicated situations are also emerging as a result of the pandemic. Among the poorer sections of society, the pandemic has left children affected in several ways since last year. Eg cases of sexual abuse of children in slums because they were left vulnerable.

In another case documented in a report by NGO Protsahan, the relatives of a minor girl wanted to get her married.

  • There is a process as per the JJ Act which needs to be followed with children who have been orphaned.
  • If someone has information about a child in need of care, then they must contact one of the four agencies:Childline 1098, or the district Child Welfare Committee (CWC), District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) or the helpline of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
  • Following this, the CWC will assess the child and place him or her in the immediate care of a Specialised Adoption Agency.
  • The State thus takes care of all such children who are in need of care and protection, till they turn 18 years.
  • Once a child is declared legally free for adoption by the CWC, adoption can be done either by Indian prospective adoptive parents or non-resident Indians or foreigners, in that order.
  • India has ratified Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, 1993.
  • TheCentral Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), a statutory body of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, is the nodal agency for adoption. It regulates the adoption of orphaned, abandoned and surrendered children through its associated or recognised agencies.
  • Governments should proactively reach out to those in distress using its database of Covid-19 deceased, which has addresses and contact details. This is an approach adopted by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), Government of Delhi.
  • Cash transfers may prove crucial in mitigating the risks that parental loss likely brings. It is worth reflecting on whether they are effective in keeping the child from having to work as labour in order to take care of the additional costs due to schooling
  • Article 39 of the Constitution prohibits the tender age of the children from being abused. Therefore, orphaned children who have lost both their parents or abandoned or surrendered due to the Covid-19 pandemic must not be neglected and left to face an uncertain future. They must be taken care of by the authorities entrusted with responsibilities under the JJ Act.
  • Children are an important national asset, and the well-being of the nation, and its future, depend on how its children grow and develop. The primary purpose of giving a child in adoption is his welfare and restoring his or her right to family.
  • With an objective of providing psychological and emotional support to children affected during Covid-19 Pandemic, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) is providing Tele-Counselling to children through SAMVEDNA (Sensitizing Action on Mental Health Vulnerability through Emotional Development and Necessary Acceptance). This is a step in the right direction.

The role played by NCPCR become very important in such circumstance as it is mandated to examine and review the safeguards provided by or under any law for the time being in force for the protection of child rights and recommend measures for their effective implementation and inquire into violation of child rights and recommend initiation of proceedings in such cases among other things:

  • The NCPCR has recently written to the education departments of states and union territories to ensure that during the lockdownno child should be subjected to any kind of harassment from school authorities on account of payment of school fee.
  • The positive role of National Commission for the protection of child rights has been reported many a time. For example, in 2007, it took initiatives to protect school children from harsh corporal punishments.
  • The involvement and assistance of Panchayat Raj Institution in child protectionmatters with the commission has made commendable results. For example, in Meghalaya, 132 cases of children missing were reported through the initiative of local Panchayats.
  • Another notable, instance is that the NCPCR had submitted its reports towards the strategies for protection of child rightsespecially for abolition of child labour in Eleventh plan.
  • Again, the commission has started a helpline on educationin the light of the rights of children free and compulsory education act, 2009.

In another instance, on a complaint filed by a local college student, of Nawanshahr, the NCPCR has asked the chief election commissioner of India to issue necessary instructions to the authorities concerned

  • Its role is limited to just recommendatory directives and they lack any power to enforce their recommendations.
  • There is no   time   frame   for   the   completion   of   the   enquiries   or investigations.
  • The NCPCR has been criticized by activists for allegedly turning a blind eye to police brutalities following the crackdown on protesters holding demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, in U.P. and Delhi.
  • The Supreme Court recently ordered the Centre, the NCPCR and its arms in New Delhi and U.P. to submit a report on detention of children in jails, calling such actions as a violation of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015.
  • The Supreme Court has sought a response from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to its request to eight States to “produce” children living in care homes before the local child welfare committees for their “immediate repatriation” with their families.
  • A detailed child protection policy, guidelines, and action plan must be designed to protect children from various forms of vulnerabilities emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. This should be effectively implemented in coordination with various bodies, volunteers and civil society organisations.
  • A standard and clear policy on learning and education during the pandemic must be prepared keeping in mind the best interests of all children and must be followed uniformly and without discrimination across government, aided and private schools/systems.
  • The Village Child Protection Committee Program under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme must be effectively implemented in partnership with school teachers and civil society organisations. This committee should ensure access to services, monitor and prevent violations like child abuse, child marriage, child trafficking and child labour and create awareness on the rights of children.
  • Special child care protection must be provided to the children of migrant workers and all frontline workers including sanitation workers, ASHA workers and other essential workers.
  • A monitoring system and periodic audits must be put in place to track the welfare of children in child care institutions and juvenile homes. Children in these institutions must have access to regular health screening and counselling services.

It is true that Covid-19 is not caused by governments but it has evolved as a disaster because of our governance or the lack of it. We will overcome the virus sooner or later but at what stage Covid-19 ceases to be a disaster remains to be seen. Surely, its impact will linger longer on those who have lost their family.