Children during COVID-19 : A review of India's response

By Aswathy Sajith

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Two weeks after the 21 day lockdown was announced by the central government, the Ministry of Home Affairs in its National directives for COVID management (Annexure I, Order No 40 - 3/2020 -DM-I(A)) directed children below ten years of age to stay at homes, except for meeting essential requirements and health purposes in view of the spread of coronavirus. This directive received a lot of attention from the public as it was taken up by all the mainstream media outlets. Yes, it is true that the state has the rightful duty to take necessary steps towards the protection and well being of the lives and interests of its people but more importantly the children as they are its future citizens. But, whether they are actually in a safe and protective environment behind closed doors is a question that needs to be investigated further. A discussion paper published by UNICEF notes that though the direct effect of COVID 19 on children is less, the indirect effect will be severe and enduring. They have also indicated that the response strategies taken by each government to control the pandemic will have a determining role in managing these long term effects (Coreia, Jolly, Stewart; April 2020). Thus, it is of paramount importance for each of us to critically understand the implications of the states' containment policies and strategies by asking specific questions about how these strategies would impact our children. It also holds relevance as experts have indicated towards a post-covid era of uncertainties with fundamental changes in beliefs and attitudes of individuals. As children are the ones who will grow up in a less experienced new world order, collective efforts across multiple domains is the need of the hour, especially in a country like India which has the highest number (242 million) of young people between the age group of 10-24 years according to the World Population prospects.

What are the existing provisions?

Let's begin this by looking at the provisions that we already have in the system. The Ministry of Women and Child Development, India came into effect on January 30th, 2006 primarily to address the gap between the state's action on women and children by creating gender equitable and child-centred legislations, policies and programmes. It envisions "well nurtured children with full opportunities for growth and development in a safe and protective environment". It is of great importance to understand and deconstruct the above statement and to put in all efforts to realize this vision in a post covid Era. The important themes that the vision brings out are,

  • Well nurtured children

  • Safe environment

  • Protective environment

  • Full opportunity for growth and development

In light of the present advisories issued by the government authorities, few important questions, based on the above themes, are to be asked to mitigate the long term effects on children.

  • Is the directive applicable to all the children in our country?

  • Are our children completely safe inside homes?

  • Are the experiences of all children inside homes alike?

  • In these present conditions, are we maximizing the efforts towards creating an environment which enables optimal development of a child?

Children in India, have already been subjected to multiple levels of vulnerabilities and the pandemic has heightened its chances of occurrences along with bringing in new set of challenges of its own. Also, children cannot be imagined to be a single homogenous group. Among the 172 million children in India (Census, 2011), there are a large number of children who are already in difficult situations (street connected children, orphaned children, trafficked, child in labour, child marriage, children in conflict areas, children in armed forces, children with disabilities) who are in need of safe homes. Another group of children who currently have a place to stay in-door, also have their own set of vulnerabilities such as children with disabilities (physical and psychological), children of warring/divorcing parents, children exposed to domestic violence and all forms of abuse. As we analyze the number of orders passed by the Home Ministry with regards to their COVID-19 management strategies dated from 24th March till 30th May 2020, the efforts to protect children (one among the vulnerable population) have been largely limited to directing children below the age of ten and pregnant women to stay inside homes except for essential requirements and health purposes. In line with the MHA orders, various other ministries such as the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and statutory bodies such as the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) have also released guidelines for the protection and welfare of vulnerable children. The guidelines issued by MoWCD (No. 480884/2020/JS WCD), focuses on providing coping strategies to address mental health adversaries for children, parents and caregivers in the context of COVID. It is to be noted that this guideline is founded on the basic assumptions that the parents/caregivers are intrinsically concerned about and are caring towards the children. The NCPCR has issued two major guidelines. One is the advisory regarding care and protection of children in difficult situations (dated on 28th of March 2020). It calls to the attention of local authorities and the persons in charge towards addressing the basic needs (essentials) of children moving with migrant families, children in CCIs/children living on streets. Another guideline is in regard to the Do's and Don'ts for children while using internet. The document is dated 30/09/2017 and includes nine brief pointers on safe surfing. However, the guidelines are not age specific, it falls short of matching the standards of the latest safe surfing guidelines developed by international bodies and is also not child friendly. In the field of education, though all the educational institutions are directed to be closed till further notice, the government has called for all such establishments to maintain the academic schedule through online teachings. In the first guidelines issued just after the 21 day lockdown, on 14th April 2020 (Order No.40 - 3/2020 -DM-I(A)), under social sector(para 8), the government has directed the homes of children/ disabled/mentally challenged/senior citizens/destitutes/women/widow and the observation homes, children's care homes and the places of safety for juveniles to be functional. Also for the operations of Anganwadis, the government has directed the distribution of food items and nutrition to be delivered at the door steps of beneficiaries. However, K Sharma (2020) unfolds that due to the absence of public transport facilities, the anganwadi workers were unable to reach houses to deliver food materials. Also, even if they manage to deliver it through other means, the chances of the pregnant women having the required quantity of nutrition is lesser as the entire family consumes it. The plight of the frontline workers is not much different in child care institutions too as observed by one of the Social Worker, working in a Children's home.

Lockdown and the tale of atrocities

The news of a 15 year old girl who committed suicide in the state of Kerala, due to the lack of availability of proper infrastructure to pursue her online classes is extremely alarming. The incident is an indication towards the extreme psychological impact of the current situation on children, the lack of safety net in the community and most importantly it gives more visibility to the already existing digital/technological access disparity in our country. Another news that comes from the same state is about a 54-day old infant being brutally assaulted by her father (intoxicated) in their home following a dispute with his spouse and his reservations towards a girl child. This case brings in a whole lot of issues that a child is vulnerable to, that ranges from domestic abuse, violence against girl children to alcohol abuse and such horrendous crimes. The news of 57 girl children, from a children's shelter home in Kanpur UP, who tested COVID positive with five among them to be pregnant is sending shock waves across the state. Another minor in the same shelter home was reported to be HIV positive. The daily which reported the incident on 22nd June states that though the capacity of the state home is 100, it currently houses 171 girl children which indicates its inability to exercise social distancing.

The disturbing news of increasing occurrences of violence against children, child abuse, suicides, etc. which are coming from across the nation points towards the need for an immediate coordinated action from multiple stakeholders and the need for central ministries to rope in all possible resources/agencies with the optimum utilisation of the federal provisions to protect the rights and interests of the children. As seen from all the above situations, it is of urgency for authorities and also the common people to recognize that though children may be protected from the virus by staying indoors, there is a greater level of risks and vulnerabilities of varying magnitude involved due of their exposure to violence, abuse, lack of proper infrastructural facilities, lack of meeting the basic necessities etc that they may be subjected to, inside closed doors. This is disruptive and detrimental to their overall growth & development. And this brings us back to all the four questions that we had asked previously and calls for a need for systematic study and discussion of such targeted questions at the earliest by researchers. Asking these questions are critical in order to devise policies and strategies which uplift their rights, which are inclusive in nature and also ensures the overall growth and development of the child.

#ChildRights #covid19 #childhealth

Ms. Sajith is a Social Worker from TISS, based in Mumbai. The views expressed in the article are personal to the author

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