ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Child Protection and Preparedness in COVID-19 Epoch

Priti Mahara (priti.mahara@crymail.org) is director, Policy, Research and Advocacy, CRY—Child Rights and You.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has meant immense hardship for many sections of society. For children, and especially those from the marginalised communities, the impact has been harsher. They will also face increased risks and hardships in the post-lockdown period. A look at what can be done to deal with these hardships.

The Census 2011 data suggests that 37% of India’s population is ­accounted for by children. And for rather a long time, the country has been struggling to combat the challenges directly impacting children’s lives—especially the lives of the ones from marginalised and vulnerable communities. For over four decades, Child Rights and You (CRY) has been working with ­issues of malnutrition, infant mortality, school dropouts, child labour, child marriage and child abuse, among many other vulnerabilities faced by underpri­vileged children. Our grassroots experience and other evidences clearly show that illness, mortality and morbidity, productivity and developmental chall­enges are all connected to childhood trauma and exposure to violence. Any kind of conflict, crisis, natural calamities and health emergencies—like the one COVID-19 pandemic has hurled upon us—can further affect children’s well-being, survival, safety, protection and overall development.

Child protection is usually defined as the issues related to protecting children from any kind of violence, exploitation, abuse, neglect and discrimination. Article 19 of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child provides for the ­protection of children in and out of the home.

As said earlier, conflict and emergency situations like natural calamities and epidemics like COVID-19 jeopardise children’s well-being, survival, safety, prote­ction and overall development to a large extent. There is no denying the fact that even before this global pandemic, we could not provide adequate care and safety to our children. The continuum of vulnerability has increased now and hence, the chances of children falling out of the safety net have multiplied many times. Previous humanitarian crises like frequents floods, earthquakes and epidemics have documented the threats to children and their devastating long-lasting effects.

Safety of children is dependent on the nature and scale of the emergency, qua­lity and functioning of pre-existing child protection mechanisms, the community’s preparedness and most importantly, the capacity of the state to respond. The protection risks include separation from families, trafficking, abuse, trauma, com­mercial exploitation and death. These realities always existed. But are we, as a society and nation, prepared to face and combat the protection issues of children in the world post COVID-19 (Table 1, p 11)?

If not, it will take us decades to give children a safe childhood.

With the global tally of deaths due to COVID-19 increasing, it is evident that children are losing parents, loved ones, caregivers and acquaintances. The trauma of losing people to death is long-lasting, causing stress and anxiety. Children, now more than ever, need psychosocial care to cope with the stress. There is emerging evidence that violence against children is increasing in all different forms—from domestic violence ranging from physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home to excessive use of force by law enforcement while enforcing lockdown decisions against the vulnerable children. In the words of the UN Secretary General,

What began as a health crisis risks evolving into a broader child-rights crisis. Are we doing enough for the well-being of children of frontline staff delivering essential services, children in conflict zones, children who lost their parents, children in childcare ins­tit­utions and observation homes? Agenda for Action (2020)

To prevent child abuse and to save children from harms, child protection services must be declared as essential, children’s health services must be accessible by all during lockdowns, quarantines and after removal of restrictions. National child helplines and gender-based violence services must get enough resources to reach and respond to survivors and/or witnesses of violence.

The child protection committees and other child protection units under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), various schools have always raised the issue of lack of counsellors and psycho­logists providing mental health or psychosocial support to children, parents and caregivers. The government and civil society need to build the capacity of tea­chers, social workers, front-line government staffs, child protection service providers on basic counselling skills, psychosocial caring and addressing mental health ­issues. It is going to be a tough challenge to overcome.

Equally important is to identify children at risk as well as the follow-up methods to mitigate the risks during and after lockdowns. During the nationwide lockdown, children are already bearing the brunt of the mass migrant exodus and the lack of safe spaces. Street children, missing children, children who had fled their homes are at a greater risk of trafficking, forced begging and child labour. We need stronger tracking systems at local levels to keep record of families and children entering and exiting the villages/slums, to expedite follow-ups and reduce the risks.

Loss of livelihoods, absence of adequate financial and social protection in India’s informal sector, will force the families to send their children to work. Children, being the cheapest source of labour, will also be in great demand as we face recession. They will also incre­asingly be working in agricultural fields and be engaged in household chores when movement is restricted. Financial support to vulnerable families, relaxation of school fees, incentive schemes supporting children’s education, especially girls, support to innovative learning opp­ortunities, minimising losses to income will be able to prevent children from entering the workforce.

With decreasing incomes and allied livelihood challenges of the poor families, there is a high chance that child trafficking will see an increase. Strong family- and community-level support for children, active community-based child protection mechanisms, long-term multi­sectoral response to address trafficking and mainstreaming of children are ways to mitigate this risk.

During the COVID-19 emergency, the government has already passed an order (in line with a Supreme Court order [writ petition (c) No 1/2020]) to release children from all forms of observation and special childcare institutions and send them back to their families. Children are also at the risk of engaging or re-engaging into activities in conflict with the laws. The question that remains is, are we prepared enough to address these issues?

Budget and Planning

With many services, including classes, being delivered online, the dependence and number of hours spent on the internet has increased manifold. The question of online security and safety has become of utmost importance. Parents and caregivers need to be capacitated on better ways to protect children online and offline, including how to respond to, and report, the incidents of online abuse and misconducts.

To improve and strengthen safe online practices, the government must provide guidelines for stricter monitoring of online risks and potential harms by educational institutions and restricting “screen time,” especially for younger children. Appropriate technical measures like parental control tools, age verification, safety-by-design, age-differentiated expe­riences, adequate filters must be applicable for the private sectors too.

Gender discrimination is one sad rea­lity of our country that is likely to be augmented by a pandemic of this nature. Apart from the livelihood challenges increasing the number of child marriages, adolescent girls face multiple other challenges like having to drop out of school, taking over household chores, sibling care and other activities. Financial insecurities, breakdown of social networks, safety concerns and fear of sexual abuse impact girls’ future more in terms of losing out on educational opportunities. A gender-sensitive approach must aid girls’ return to schools post lockdowns. Flexible learning opportunities, catch-up courses and accelerated learning opportunities may help, and so will meticulous tracking of school registers to check on girls who have not returned to school.

A comprehensive plan to protect the children needs adequate investment. However, the budget for children shows a continuous decrease over the past five years. The amount that was 4.2% of the total union budget in 2014–15, has gradually decreased to 3.31% in 2018–19. Similarly, child budget as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) has dec­reased from 0.6% in 2014–15 to 0.4% in 2016–17 and has remained stagnant since then. Specifically under child protection, the considerable and constant rise in financial allocations over the years shows both the scope of extending the umbrella of child protection services and the constraint under which they have been operating since the ICPS was first operationalised in 2009. The changes in the scenario due to the pandemic will, however, turn the optimal usage of resources into a challenge and require an increase in the budget proportion to safeguard children effectively.

While we prepare to protect children from the indirect onslaughts of COVID-19, we must also keep in mind two other critical aspects. One, we must boost the on-ground machinery and promote civil registration as they work with children, families and communities. Civil registration can mitigate child protection risks and birth registration is particularly essential for children’s protection. It documents children’s identity, supports access to services and verifies age to protect children from exploitation, among other benefits. And second, it is critical that the COVID-19 child protection preparedness plan be inclusive in nature ensuring gender sensitivity and including children with disabilities, children from minorities, tribal and Scheduled Caste children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or asexual children.

An early and timely intervention, eff­ective planning and building existing capacities will strengthen preparedness and support the physical and emotional health, dignity and well-being of children, families and communities. Prevention is always better then cure and unplanned response.

Reference

Agenda for Action (2020): “8 United Nations Entities Launch Roadmap to Protect Children from Violence in Response to COVID-19,” April, https://violenceagainstchildren.un.org/news/agenda-action-8-united-natio....

 

Updated On : 29th Jul, 2020

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