COVID-19 outbreak was declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January 2020. Since then WHO has declared it as a pandemic affecting more than 115 countries around the globe. India has seen its first COVID-19 case in Kerala on 30th January 2020. However, until the 13th march Ministry of Health didn’t consider it as a Public Health Emergency for the country. But, soon cases were started increasing exponentially, and India adopted the lock-down strategy to combat COVID-19. This was started with a pleasant surprise in the form of Janta Curfew on 22nd March. The Janta-Curfew was imposed without working on any strategy, but people showed their self-discipline and remained in their homes. The streets/roads were empty, and state police didn’t have to work hard to impose the curfew. However, this was till 5:00 PM, as soon as the time to present the gratitude to the health workers came, the street flooded with people. It was like a celebration after winning a World Cup, and this way we missed the point and this celebration has become a risk factor in spreading the virus. Just before 21 days nationwide official lockdown after Janta Curfew which was started from 24th March, India witnessed a mass exodus of people returning home – from migrant workers going back to villages, to various young people working or studying in various cities, trying hard to come back home. This again weakened the fight against Coronavirus and showed a failed strategy of the government. Then 21 days nation-wide lockdown which was started from 24th March were announced without providing any safety net to the poor. This curfew was announced by the PM in his address on 23rd March at 8:00 PM just 4 hours the curfew begins. This was done without any strategy, letting people in chaos, and made them stand in queues to buy essentials things. This led to the hoarding of essential commodities by the elite class, leaving nothing for the poor section. Now India has entered into phase 2 of lockdown extending from 14th April to 03rd May. But the cases are rising steadily and we are confronting a situation that humanity has not faced in modern times.

The COVID-19 outbreak has thrown most countries into unprecedented and massive health and humanitarian crisis. And there is still a huge uncertainty around how long this crisis will last and what damage it would do to the economy, livelihoods of citizens and availability of basic healthcare to those who need it the most. The lockdown strategy of 21 days and now the extended 19 days has put a large chunk of the population in a vulnerable situation where they are barely surviving. At this time of crisis, when everyone is talking about solidarity across the groups to fight together to gear up and restore the health, economy and emotional well-being of the people, one particular section is left out as usual – i.e. ‘the children.’ Though the age of a child is itself shows the vulnerability, but there are other axes too that makes a child more vulnerable such as Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, Muslim, transgender, and non-conforming children; children with disabilities; street children; children with mental illnesses or children fighting with fatal diseases; children in institutions; orphan children, etc. These groups of children with added vulnerability due to caste, class, and gender are fighting this pandemic much worse than other privileged groups. Therefore, one needs to look at these various identities while talking about child rights. Amidst this global crisis, though children are facing multiple issues, here I would like to focus on one particular issue – “Violence against Children” which is always been ignored, and surrounded by a wall of silence but has been in existence since time immemorial. The violence against children means “all forms of ill-treatment – physical, emotional or psychological, and sexual; neglect or negligent treatment; commercial or other exploitations; to a person below the age of eighteen; resulting in actual or potential harm or threatened to harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity; meted out from the structural arrangements – economic, political, legal, religious, societal or cultural; and normalized by the stable institutions which shape the interaction of individuals and groups within the social system.”

The issue of violence against children has always been a rampant crisis and dark reality of our society, but today at the time of COVID-19 crisis, this issue has become more serious, and hence it should have been ranked high on the global agenda, but unfortunately, it is surrounded by a wall of silence and perpetuated by the ignorance. It is also a fact that violence which is a fundamental violation of human rights, and a major public health issue across the globe has always been neglected as a public health issue, though it has serious and inexorable damages to the health of a child. As per WHO, the impact of violence on children can be deeply destructive and can have both constitutive and consequential effects. Constitutive effects refer to the pain and suffering, a child experiences and internalize as the immediate result of an act of violence, while consequential effects refer to the long-term consequences that persist beyond the immediate experience. Due to violence, a child may face physical health problems such as changes in the development of the brain, injuries, bruises, and fractures; learning problems; difficulties in dealing with other people; emotional health problems such as anxiety, depression, aggression or even wanting to kill himself or herself; finding it hard to express feelings in a way that other people can understand, and being more likely to do dangerous things like using drugs or having sex at a very young age. This issue of violence amidst lockdown has become more serious because at this time children are deprived of every support network that help them to cope: from their friends and trusted teachers to after-school activities and visits to a beloved relative’s house that provide an escape from their abusive environment.

How COVID-19 making the life of Children miserable –

We have witnessed how this pandemic brought migrant workers including children from big cities on the road with no food and shelter to stay. We also have witnessed that children living in urban slums or in rural areas who were dependant on the daily wage of their family members to survive have nothing to eat, let alone forget about the nutritious food due to the loss of their earnings. Moreover, amidst lockdown, children are missing even mid-day meal food, and the state is not taking any cognizance of this to help those needy children but leaving them to die. This state neglect which is depriving the poorest and the most vulnerable group of the society from the access of necessities to life is nothing but a social murder – a term coined by the Frederic Engels in 1845. Here, it should be noted that the definition of violence given above also include neglect. The magnitude of the issue can be understood from the fact that during lockdown amidst COVID-19, the Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days (between March 20-31). This is an indication of worry about children trapped with their abusers at home. There are many heart-wrenching news making us rethink about humanity. A news states that a woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Bhadohi district allegedly threw her five children into the Ganga following an argument with her husband, in another news an eight-year-old boy, from Bhojpur district of Bihar, allegedly starved to death due to lack of work, and subsequently food, during the current lockdown. And in another news, an 11-year-old Dalit boy died of hunger at Mushahar Tola in Bihar’s Ara district on March 27. A report titled “Child Sexual Abuse Material in India”  released by The India Child Protection Fund (ICPF) set up in January 2020, documented disturbing reality of our society showing a 95% increase in child porn search from March 24- March 26 amidst lockdown. This is scary because studies have shown that the majority of child sexual predators are family members or known family friends. This puts the children who are living in lockdown under a dangerous threat. These are the few examples that should have rattled all civil society and political organisations.

Now let’s move to the child care institutions, which is always over-crowded. In these care institutions, children are often undernourished and their mental health is highly affected. They have poor access to WASH, which is a key preventive measure of COVID-19. Also, due to over-crowd in institutions, children do not have the luxury to maintain the physical distance. Moreover, there may be a possibility of a major food crisis in these institutions, if food is not stocked up enough. Not limited to this, studies in the past have shown a high rate of physical, sexual, and emotional violence in child care institutions. A study on child abuse in 13 states in India conducted by MWCD (Ministry of Women and Child Development) in 2007 reported that 56.37% of children were subjected to physical abuse by staff members of the child care institutions. The study by Team Koshish in 2018, which rattled the political circles and the civil society and put the entire nation to shame, documented that most of the institutions in Bihar have grave instances of physical and sexual violence. This is the condition of care institutions where vulnerable children take refuge, and which are meant to be safe abodes, considered as ‘home’ though looking at their condition they can never be near to home.

Children living in the streets are another most vulnerable group at greater risk amidst COVID-19. India is the world’s largest population of street children, estimated to be 18 million. As per the 2010 census of street children in Delhi, there were approximately 51,000 children below the age of 18 years on the street. These are the group, whose lives were dependent on begging, now have no choice to manage for their foods. Streets were home for these children where they rely for food and shelter, but after lockdown, they are criminalised and become more vulnerable. A report published in The Guardian reports that a child states “how he will eat if the rich people stay home.”

The story of Muslim children in North-East Delhi, affected by organized pogroms is not different, in fact, they are more vulnerable and are at higher risk. The massacre has forced thousands of families from North East Delhi to seek refuge in a camp towards the outskirts of Delhi. The children who were already going through mental trauma, neither have food to survive, let alone forget about the nutritious food that can increase their immune system to fight with coronavirus, nor they have the luxury to maintain the physical distance.

Now coming to the family environment, it can’t be ignored that there exists a high prevalence of violence against children perpetrated by the family members. In this setting, violence is condoned as a normal part of socialization for the appropriate behaviour of boys and girls, as a legitimate part of growth by the culture and society. A study on child abuse in 13 states in India conducted by MWCD reported that in a family environment every second child perceives himself or herself as being emotionally and sexually abused, two out of every three children experience physical abuse. Another study by (Segal & Ashtekar, 1994) on physical abuse by parents/caregivers within the family environment documented that 50.1% of children reported that they have experienced some form of physical violence at the hands of their parents, out of which two-thirds stated that they had to run away from their home when they could no longer tolerate the violence. The study also reported that 69.2% of the abusive fathers were also substance abusers (alcohol and illicit drugs) and they were more likely to engage in abusive violence. From these shreds of evidence, we can imagine how the prevalence of violence would have been increased amidst lockdown when all the family members are living together at home, in a society which is a land of social and cultural beliefs where social and cultural relativism is often used to justify child-rearing practices that may harm or potential to harm the child. Not only this, but the economic fallout of COVID-19 has also been swift and brutal. Lockdowns and stay at home orders have resulted in job losses and economic insecurity, increasing pressure and uncertainty for many families. This results in stress at home which in turn increases the risk of violence. This can be understood from a heart-wrenching incident in Gurugram where a man sells the phone to buy food for the family, and then hangs himself, and in Agra, a man tried to scoop spilled milk into an earthen pot while a bunch of dogs lick the same milk from the streets. The milk had spilled from a milk tank, which was passing from there. These incidents reveal one of the uglier sides of the pandemic and the pandemonium it has unleashed upon the poor. Understanding these grave concerns the United Nations had already warned the world that at a time of lockdowns and home isolation, children are at greater risk of experiencing violence, exploitation, and challenges to their mental health. Also, a letter has been written by two lawyers to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde requesting him to take suo motu (on its own) cognizance of increase in the number of child abuse cases during the ongoing nationwide lockdown. In the letter, it was stated that the incidents of child abuse have already risen in India due to the lockdown and will keep increasing if steps are not taken immediately to protect and support the victims of child abuse.

It should be noted that violence is not a private matter that should be left only to individuals to resolve, but a matter of human rights that states must uphold. Failure to provide basic necessities of life to the children as this time of crisis will be meant to social murder of those vulnerable children. The issue of violence against children in whatever manner it is perpetuated shall be treated as a chronic medico-social disease, exposure to which may lead to various short and long term health consequences, impacting children’s overall health and well-being. This serious impact of childhood violence breeds fear violates the dignity and rights of children and robs them of the joys of childhood. Protecting children from violence must, therefore, be a priority for everyone, every child has a right to be protected from violence, the right given in Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international agreement which most countries in the world including India have signed and committed themselves to fulfil.

Thus COVID-19 crisis is impacting children greatly, but we are unprepared and not taking the protection of children seriously enough as a society. The profound, lasting health impacts of trauma on children are poorly understood and often minimized. Though children may not be as susceptible to the virus as other groups, but they are especially vulnerable to so many of the secondary impacts of the pandemic on society. As this pandemic is making us rethink our humanity, none is more important, or urgent, than the overall protection of children. Therefore, the question we need to ask is – what government and society are doing to protect these vulnerable children from suffering harm amidst lockdown that will affect their health and well-being for the rest of their lives?

Abid Faheem,Research Scholar, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health (JNU)


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