Jaipur: A six-month old who was touched inappropriately by her father while they were stuck at home during the Covid-19 lockdown. A 14-year-old who might not be able to go back to school as his father, the family's only earning member, has died from the disease. Five siblings surviving on just one meal a day after their parents lost jobs. A 14-year-old pushed into labour. This is the toll Covid-19 is exacting on children, say staff from child welfare non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

While they may be less susceptible to the virus itself, children in South Asia are profoundly affected by the fallout, including the economic and social consequences of measures such as lockdowns to counter the spread of the virus, the United Nations Children's Fund had said in June 2020. A year later, the second wave of Covid-19 in India has meant that its 424 million children (aged 0 to 17 years) continue to be vulnerable.

"There is frustration, anger and sorrow around," said Bhavani, a 15-year-old from Madanapalle town in Andhra Pradesh' Chittoor district. In joint families, people who otherwise used to go to schools, colleges or to work, are now fighting over land for farming or arguing over money. Many families take this frustration out on children, she says.

Though there are few comprehensive data on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected children in India, apart from illness, anecdotal evidence, data collected from non-governmental child welfare organisations and piecemeal government data show that the number of children vulnerable to early marriage, labour and abuse has increased. India urgently needs a higher child care and protection budget, a focus on child rights and more schemes to take care of children in an emergency, people involved in relief efforts and child protection told us.

This is the second of a two-part series on the pandemic's impact on India's children. Read the first article about caring for children who have lost both parents to Covid-19 in the context of India's adoption system here.

'A sea of broken children'

Over the two waves of Covid-19 in India, millions of men and women, many of whom have insecure jobs and rely on daily wages, lost work or saw their income reduced. This has had a spiralling impact on children, staff of organisations working on child welfare told us. Households, where they were cooped up because of the countrywide and now state-specific lockdowns, are often unhappy places, with scarce food and, in some cases, violence and abuse towards children.

As schools were shut and online education was accessible to only a few, children had nothing to do and many were forced into child labour to help support their families, a survey by the NGO Save the Children found. Over three-fourths of children did not have access to online learning and over a third of children did not have access to any learning material during the first Covid-19 wave in 2020. Parents, worried about the future and relieved that the restricted gatherings during the pandemic meant fewer guests and less costly marriages, forced their children--mostly girls but also boys--to get married early. Child marriages have doubled in four southern states, nonprofit staff told us.

"The pandemic is creating a sea of broken children," said Sonal Kapoor, the founder and director of Protsahan India Foundation, a nonprofit working in 48 slums in Delhi. "An entire generation of children are in jeopardy of losing their safe spaces, their parent(s) and their childhood," says a May 2021 Protsahan report on the pandemic's impact on children living in Delhi's slums.

How many children are vulnerable?

Since before the pandemic, India's children, particularly those from vulnerable communities, suffered from "multiple deprivations"--in 2015-16, over one-third of children under five years were malnourished; more than half were anaemic; and a quarter of women between the ages of 20 and 24 years in 2015-16 were married before they had turned 18 years of age, according to fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS 2015-16).

The central government's national Childline helpline 1098 had responded to 460,000 calls in 21 days, or nearly 22,000 calls a day, with a majority of them received during the countrywide lockdown from March 20, 2020, to April 10, 2020, a Save the Children report published during the first wave of the pandemic, said. Call volumes had risen by 50% compared to their average regular calls, per an April 6, 2020 newsletter by Childline, which Save the Children quoted in its report. This was despite the fact that many children might not have had the opportunity to reach out for help as they were at home, Childline reportedly said.

"We are not authorised to speak to the media during this time of the pandemic since our priority is attending to children in need," a spokesperson for Childline told IndiaSpend via email, in response to a request for up-to-date data on children in distress who contacted the helpline.

Two factors reduced the number of calls we would have received, Archana Sahay of Aarambh, a Bhopal-based nonprofit that is also Childline's partner in that city, told IndiaSpend. First, fewer children were able to access the helpline as they were always inside the house, especially if the source of distress was within the household. Second, Childline often receives calls from people who notice children in distress, but with everyone inside their own houses, these incidents stay hidden, Sahay explained.

The last months during the second wave of Covid-19 lockdowns have been bad, with cases of everything from hunger to child labour to child marriage growing, said Sahay. In two months to May 28, 2021, Aarambh intervened in 121 distress calls from children in Bhopal. This is equivalent to almost a third of all calls they intervened in, in 2020-21 and nearly equal to all calls in 2018-19.

In 2019-20, Childline had run a special campaign popularising the helpline and to find children pushed to beg on the streets, so the data from that year (463 distress calls on the helpline) are not directly comparable to the other years, said Sahay.

Cases of child labour and child marriage have doubled in villages of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana where nonprofit Child Rights and You (CRY) and its partner organisations work, John Roberts, programme head for southern India, told IndiaSpend. CRY works in 19 states in India.

About 13% of girls reported facing sexual abuse during the pandemic, according to another survey by Protsahan, conducted in May, June and July 2020, along with its partners Deepalaya, Martha Farrell Foundation and the Shades of Happiness Foundation. The survey of 416 girls aged 11-18 years old was conducted in Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Odisha and Chattisgarh.

Cases of children in distress that are usually counted by both the government and nonprofits are usually of those from low-income families, said Sahay. Children from middle-class families, whose parents have lost jobs or are working on reduced pay, very rarely reach out to helplines or nonprofits and are not considered for most relief efforts, she explained, adding that these children are mostly not even included in data.

Education out of reach, pushed into labour

Over three-fourths of children did not have access to online learning and over a third of children did not have access to any learning material, the nonprofit Save the Children found in its survey during the first wave of Covid-19. Schools have now remained closed for over a year since March 24, 2020, and will impact learning, IndiaSpend reported in December 2020.

In families like Bhavani's, whose father is an auto driver and mother is a daily wage worker, siblings share one smartphone. Bhavani often misses classes because her college-going brother needs the phone for his online classes, she told us. Bhavani misses going to school where she would take part in essay writing and oratory competitions, she said.

Further, schools are not just places where children study, say NGO staff. Schools are often the first place where a teacher can identify if a child is in distress and the child can reach out for help. "If a poor child is going to school, the chances that they are being pushed into early marriage, labour or trafficked, are significantly reduced," said Roberts of CRY. With schools not functioning, along with the demand for cheap labour and low family incomes, children are pushed into labour, Roberts said.

During the second Covid-19 lockdown, some of the 265 adolescent girls in Delhi and their parents interviewed by Protsahan were heading back to their villages after the parents lost work, and some girls among those families who stayed back had joined their parents in selling vegetables. Some were helping their family by sewing toy clothes for Rs 100-150 a day, the survey found.

Protsahan also identified 41 children who had lost their father, the major breadwinner of the family, to Covid-19, which makes children in the family vulnerable to child labour, among other dangers. Children are also pushed into begging during such times, said Sahay.

When India began unlocking after the countrywide lockdown in 2020, fewer trains than usual were functioning. Traffickers arranged buses to ferry trafficked children across states when industries started opening up, said Suresh Kumar, executive director of Centre Direct, a nonprofit in Patna working to rescue and rehabilitate trafficked child labourers. Because most civil society groups are used to keeping an eye on trains as those are commonly used for trafficking, initially many of these cases where buses were used must have been missed, said Kumar.

Nonprofits have found it hard to visit villages and keep in touch with families during the second wave of Covid-19 lockdowns, said Kumar. "Now that we have started calling on and visiting families, traffickers--many of whom are local--have already convinced the parents to send their children to work to supplement their meagre incomes," Kumar said. "We will only know of the scale of child labour once things start opening up over the next two months."

Globally, around 160 million children were in child labour in the early stage of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020, accounting for almost one in 10 of all children worldwide, according to a new UNICEF report. Without urgent mitigation measures, the Covid-19 crisis is likely to push millions more children into child labour globally, said UNICEF.

One meal a day

India's mid-day meal programme in government schools is a source of nutrition for the school-going child. The missing mid-day meals during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, coupled with low incomes, have left many children eating just rice or roti with salt or sugar, IndiaSpend reported in June 2020. Though the central government had ordered that local fair price shops give even those without ration cards subsidised grains under its Atmanirbhar package, not everyone was able to access these.

In May 2021, because schools were closed, the government suggested that the cost of the cooking component of the mid-day meal scheme be transferred to 118 million students as a direct benefits transfer. Since the first wave, mid-day meals are also being provided as take-home rations to families. In addition, the government had also announced free food grains monthly under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY), which has been extended till November 4, 2021. Yet, those working on the ground told us about hunger increasing during the pandemic.

For instance, many of those who migrate to cities do not have ration cards or have left their ration cards in the village, without which they might not be able to access subsidised grains, nonprofit staff said. Children sometimes manage with just one meal. This lack of food in the formative years of life could cost children their health and lives even years after the pandemic, as we reported.

Nutrition becomes even more important in the Covid-19 pandemic, said Roberts from CRY, as it helps give the body strength to fight the disease. To reduce hunger, CRY tries to ensure that take-home rations from closed anganwadis reach families of pregnant women and young children, so that they can use it to supplement their meals, Roberts said.

Child marriage increases

Between June and October 2020, child marriages reportedly increased by more than 33%, compared to the same period in 2019. Separately, in April 2020, Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani tweeted that Childline had helped prevent 898 child marriages during the 2020 lockdown.

Some parents that Aarambh staff in Bhopal interacted with told them that they were getting their children married because they were worried about getting Covid-19 and their child's future if they did not survive the disease. Further, given the Covid-19 restrictions on large gatherings, some parents see it as an opportunity to have a small wedding and save money, nonprofit staff said.

Locked indoors with abusers

Even in the families her NGO works with, children are beaten routinely as they become easy targets for parents and grandparents venting out their frustration, said Jalla Lalithamma from the People's Organisation for Rural Development (PORD), a CRY partner. Children asking for better food that the family cannot afford, fights over toys, phones, everything leads to more tension in the household, said Lalithamma.

Within the household, one of the most hurtful outcomes for children has been more cases of sexual abuse. Families and even the children are reluctant to report or pursue a case, NGO staff say. In one case, in which a 12-year-old child was raped by their father, if the case goes through, the father is likely to get the death penalty, said Kapoor of Protsahan. But the child would be confused and might even feel guilty for what happened with the father, she explained. "Children need counselling and help to go through such experiences," she added.

Further, sometimes when abuse takes place within the household, the reaction might be to take the child away. Instead of the child being moved away from all that they know and are familiar with, especially if one of the parents can take care of the child, the abuser should be taken away, said Kapoor.

Children protecting children

When Bhavani was a grade VII student at the Vivekananda Municipal High School, she gave an inspirational speech on Babasaheb Ambedkar, freedom and India's constitution. A PORD worker heard the speech and came up to her, Bhavani told IndiaSpend. "She appreciated me and said I should use this skill to bring other children together and participate in the activities [of the NGO]," Bhavani, now 15, said. Bhavani, along with 20 other children, is part of a community group that tries to spread the message against child marriage.

When NGO staff try to educate people on child marriage, they get angry, Bhavani said. "But, if children like me confront the parents saying we [the children] should all study together and ask them why they are marrying their daughters off…" it would be more effective, she said. She and other children in the group inform the NGO staff if they hear of a child marriage being planned.

Such community groups can help prevent child labour and child marriage, but they can be effective only when backed by the local authorities and police, said Centre Direct's Kumar. The effectiveness of such groups would also depend on the village, its caste hierarchies, power struggles and vulnerable groups, he explained. There ought to be Child Protection Committees (CPC) in every village and district as mandated under India's Integrated Child Protection Scheme, but that is not always the case, Kumar added. The village head, an anganwadi worker, school principals, children, parents and grassroots health workers are all part of the CPC.

Intervention to address a growing national emergency

Just like every other message on WhatsApp nowadays is about Covid-19, the government needs to ensure the message against child labour and child marriage is put out strongly, said Roberts. The government needs to go all out, he added. Civil society organisations play their part but a message from the government would "make it a lot safer for children", said Roberts.

Kapoor asked that workers with Childline be designated as frontline workers and be vaccinated on priority. She also suggested that organisations working on child rights within communities have permission to travel freely even when lockdowns are instated.

For child labour, two states--one where the child is from and the other where the employers are--need to work in collaboration with courts to bring traffickers and those who employ child labourers to book, Kumar explained. Currently, many children and their families are unable to travel to the state where the employers are to fight cases, which means that many cases do not see an end and traffickers and such employers can "work with impunity", he said.

A mindset shift is required in police and government officials, Kumar said. "Garib ka baccha kamaega nahin to khaayega kya," (If the child of a poor family does not earn, how will they eat) is how most people think. This creates a vicious cycle in which a poor child stays out of school because of work and stays poor because of a lack of education and this cycle can persist in the next generation too, Kumar explained.

Further, there needs to be stronger political will to fight child labour and trafickking, according to Kumar. For instance, "often governments point to the nearly universal school enrollment and attendance to claim that few children are trafficked or employed but they do not verify if the attendance records are accurate", he added.

To prevent children from falling off the education bandwagon and to keep them busy with learning, CRY is providing children with learning and play material. They also have a 14-week programme in which children come to an activity centre set up in the village once a week where they play games, do arts and crafts, etc. Some of these activities have now moved online where possible.

"Civil society organisations are helping children but how many can they help? Large-scale action is needed to protect children," Kumar said.

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