COVID-19: What does the crisis mean for our children?
By: Konina Mandal & Bhavinee Singh* |
The tragedy that is COVID-19, will without a doubt leave the world with a damaged legacy. The effect of this tragic pandemic has impacted not just us adults, but also children who happen to be one of the most vulnerable categories of our population. Age and development status of children, make them even more vulnerable to the adverse effects of this unstoppable disease. They are dependent on adults for all their basic needs ranging from nutrition, safety to overall development. Today the pandemic has transpired into a massive healthcare crisis for children around the world and specifically for children in developing South Asian countries like India.
Due to the extensive economic and development gap between the Global North and Global South and the lack of resources and investment in the healthcare infrastructure has further exposed the failing public health mechanisms. What started as a health crisis is now turning into a child rights crisis. A recent UNICEF report titled - ‘Lives Upended: How COVID-19 threatens the futures of 600 million South Asian Children’ states that in 2016, over 240 million children were living in multi-dimensional poverty. Of these, India accounts for over 155 million children living in abject poverty. The report further states that the social and economic consequences of the lockdown and other measures have laid bare the inept healthcare, nutrition, education, and child protection mechanisms of India.
Existing legal framework
India is a signatory to the United Nations Child Rights Convention (UNCRC). Ever since its ratification in 1992, India has made considerable efforts in guaranteeing the rights enshrined within the convention. Child rights have found a place not only in the Indian Constitution but also in many specific special legislations such as the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, Information Technology Act, 2000 and even the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Reflecting a strong legal regime with a comprehensive framework, the safeguards delineated for children are numerous - at least in the black letters of the law. Article 3 of the UNCRC expounds the ‘best interest principle’ which states that in all matters concerning children, their best interests should be at the forefront. Within the human rights law regime, it is a principle that is unique to children. The proactive judiciary of our country has also given paramount importance to the “best interests of the child”. In fact, the Suo motu writ petition In re contagion of COVID 19 in view of the pandemic clearly shows the Apex court’s concern and urgency to pre-empt child-related crises from arising. In this landmark move, the court issued directions to the government as well as various authorities such as the Child Welfare Committees, Juvenile Justice Boards and Child Care Institutions. Despite such directions and the existing legal framework, during the pandemic, children have been facing numerous problems and episodes of violations that are being reported are worrisome. This concern stems from the continuous trivialising of the issues related to children, further illustrated by a major dip in the budget allocated for children. Out of the whole Union Budget for 2020-21, a meagre 3.16% has been allocated for children, who form over 37% of the total population of India.
To contain the spread of the coronavirus and suppress the epidemic, the government came up with stringent lockdown measures and social distancing norms since the month of March. These measures, apparently constructive and necessary to curb further infections, however, have led to further disadvantage among various categories of children. The entire population of children has been hit hard due to these measures. The vulnerability of children in India is further complicated by the intersectionality of caste, class, gender, economic status and demography. Street children, children living in institutions, children of migrant workers, girl children and many more have been differentially impacted.
The World Bank has said in their report ‘COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens’ that 40 million internal migrants have been impacted adversely by the lockdown. Children of migrant workers who have undertaken with their parents a mass exodus to reach their home destinations or in search of employment are left more susceptible to health problems and hazardous conditions of living.
Street children in particular face the hurdles of homelessness, lack of access to food and medical care and even risk the potential of being arrested and abused for being out on the streets during the lockdown.
Even the economic stall created and compounded by the pandemic in the form of job losses, imperfect labour markets and increasing unemployment has affected children in two ways. Firstly, it has pushed numerous children of workers of the informal sector into the quagmire of child labour. Secondly, by remaining huddled together at home, the number of incidents of violence against children has gone up drastically. According to a National Commission for Women report, between 1st March to 31st March alone, Childline received 92,000 calls reporting domestic violence against children.
Child Marriages in India has also seen a steep rise amidst the lockdown. Recently, the Telangana State Commission for Protection of Child Rights reported 204 child marriages during the lockdown while similar reports are coming from Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan and many other states. All government initiatives and efforts of civil society organizations directed at curbing child marriages have escaped scrutiny and been rendered futile due to the lockdown.
Children in Child Care Institutions have also not been spared. There are gory details coming forward about children especially girls living in shelter homes. In Kanpur, 57 girls from a shelter home were found COVID positive and at least 5 of them were also found to be pregnant. Cases of abuse and child sexual abuse have increased manifold. In such cases, the lack of healthcare, psychological and other facilities add to the trauma faced by young children.
Another significant consequence of the lockdown in India has been shutting down of schools and educational institutions. With education being imparted through the virtual mode, the disparate impact of the lack of internet, technological and infrastructural facilities is not being addressed. Also, with the disruption of schooling and discontinuance of the mid-day meal scheme, children’s nutritional status has also been adversely affected. This is because, for the most vulnerable and marginalized children, mid-day meals sometimes are the only source of nutrition. Although some states tried to figure out alternatives such as delivering cooked meal packages to homes of the children and transferring money into the bank accounts of the parents, there still exists ambiguity in terms of the actual implementation of such schemes.
Sadly, most numbers and figures in our country are merely reflective of the cases which are reported. A plethora of them goes unreported. All the above-mentioned instances highlight the inadequacy of India’s policies, government machinery and the lack of preparedness in the face of a child rights emergency.
Children need to become the focus of policymaking and monitoring. Governments in India cannot revel with just bringing down the curve for the pandemic. Child protection during these times is key and must be considered an essential service. From an institutional perspective, the various arms of the child protection mechanism such as the District Child Protection Units, Child Welfare Committees, State, District and Taluk Legal Aid Services etc should not only be more vigilant but also seriously consider conducting vulnerability assessments in remote areas. Statutory bodies such as the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) and National Legal Services Authority of India (NALSA) can facilitate and direct child protection mechanisms to conduct these assessments. The Creation of a database of such information can go a long way in creating more effective interventions. Law Schools from across India can play a significant role through the setup of Legal Aid Clinics. Volunteers from these clinics can work in cooperation with the above-mentioned bodies to form a more effective network of child protection. Systematic, structured linkages of members of these bodies with legal aid service professionals will also be fruitful. Beside policy interventions, the Courts should also expedite disposal of cases pertaining to children. POCSO Courts which specifically deal with cases of child sexual abuse should fast track cases to ensure compensation to the victims at the earliest by treading the online path. An earnest implementation of some of these solutions can further strengthen the existing framework of child protection.
Now that slowly the lockdown is being lifted, the Calcutta High Court has also voiced its apprehension stating that the issue of child trafficking and commercial sexual abuse, in particular, might drastically increase as the demand for cheap labour will rise. Decentralizing and making each level of government accountable as well as ensuring that each rung monitors child rights violations are the need of the hour.
Child rights reforms have always been a need but the unique challenge that has been posed by the pandemic is that the existing mechanisms abruptly fell apart. All the child care agencies are woefully underprepared in the face of a sudden emergency or crisis. The vulnerability of children must be at the centre of policymaking. Existing policies and structures require continuous refinement, at the same time, the evolution of novel schemes in tune with the changing circumstances is also necessary.
* The authors are the Assistant Lecturers at O.P Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.