Bijapur, in Chattisgarh, is one of India’s poorest districts. With a literacy rate of 41%, the second lowest in India, most of its people venture out in search of a better life. Such was the story of 12-year-old Jamalo Makdam, who went to Telangana seeking employment
On Sunday, April 19th, she died, 11 kms from her home, having walked over one hundred kms with 8 other girls, after she lost all work. The medical reason – electrolyte imbalance and exhaustion.
2020 – the start of a new decade – has seen times rarely witnessed by any of us in our lifetimes. The prosperity and peace of the preceding years was not without crises and disasters, but this current Covid-19 pandemic has been uniquely disruptive, a perfect storm of the modern inter-connected world economy colliding with a highly infectious disease and an information saturated digital age.
While all countries have focused on the most vulnerable populations medically – the elderly and those with co-morbidities. There is another very large population at risk – children and young adults, which has been highlighted by the United Nations.
Children are facing an increased risk of survival, decreased safety, increased poverty and a loss of learning. India has the world’s largest youth population, with 372 million children below the age of 14, as the per the most recent Census. Protecting the welfare of this population, most of whom are from impoverished backgrounds, is critical. Ignoring their needs during this time could prove disastrous in the long-term.
The most pressing danger for children is a range of threats to their survival and safety, as the story of Jamalo Makdam indicates. The cruelest impact of the crisis has been on the urban poor, migrant workers, peasants and their families. While public and private support has poured in to help them, the scenario is grim.
The unfortunate and inevitable consequence of this has been the exposure of children, in such families, to loss of food and shelter, as well as being victims of, and witnesses to domestic violence.
Government, private organizations and civil society need to work together to protect our children. There are certain aspects, if focused and acted upon in a quick and targeted manner, that can make a noticeable difference.
The first priority should be to ‘ensure timely cash transfers and distribution of food and essential services’ to vulnerable families. Having incomes and basic needs managed will also ensure that families are not driven to push children into negative pathways like child labour, child marriage, and trafficking.
Childline, a national hotline, is already reporting a sharp spike in child abuse cases. Child abuse includes all types of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, negligence and commercial or other exploitation.
The issue of abuse has been a growing problem, which has accelerated during this crisis. The 2018 annual report of the National Crime Record Bureau lists 39,287 cases under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act.
The second priority should be to ‘raise public awareness and increase education on the issue of child welfare, domestic violence and child abuse’ through all media. Increased communication and visibility will help empower potential victims and the civil society be aware of warning signs and avenues for assistance.
It can also make ‘potential abusers’ aware of their behaviour and drive change. This is especially applicable to households where children might not direct victims but often witness violence between parents and family elders.
Focusing on these two priorities will go a long way in ensuring the physical and social well-being of children, especially those from poor backgrounds. These are not the only challenges these young citizens face, but the most basic ones, and meeting these quickly and effectively, will enable a more robust one for other risks, which include loss of learning. The value of education, especially for poor children, cannot be overstated. Yet, it can only be imparted if children are first able to be physically secure and under a roof.
Chattisgarh has launched Chakmak, an online learning initiative, in partnership with UNICEF, which has reached over 800,000 children, who were earlier attending 50,000 anganwadis. This is an effort to keep children learning and engaged during this pandemic-driven lockdown.
There is also a need to be mindful of the risks posed by the growing use of digital channels and the internet. While there are undoubted benefits, especially during this time, it also makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. There has been a rapid increase in demand during this period for child pornography. There is a need to invest in technologies and mechanisms to detect, prevent and respond to this challenge.
It is also imperative to have parents as well as key influencers such as school principals, teachers and community members highlight this issue.
India’s response to this crisis has been commendable, with society, government, business and individuals coming together. However, we need to integrate child and youth centric welfare policies within existing frameworks. This can be achieved through careful planning, investment and collaboration.
The Chakmak program is a good example of this. Another one is the decision of many state governments to include the mid-day meal schemes as part of daily rations.
Decisions like these, if carried out quickly and coordinated nationally, will benefit our children, and the country, enormously.