Ensure the safety of vulnerable children
Covid-19 has rendered children, especially the girl child, particularly vulnerable. Many of them are out of school and in families which are economically impoverished. This means that the girl child may not be a priority when it comes to food or other resources available for the family. Economic distress contributes to malnutrition and further hampers children’s health and growth parameters.
Such children are also more prone to being pushed into child labour to supplement the family income, and in case of girls, early marriages. In this backdrop, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on Independence Day that the government is considering a proposal to increase the age of marriage for girls is a positive development.
Children are cheap labour; they are not aware of their rights; their families are desperate — ideal conditions for exploitative employers. In these fraught times, children, especially the girl child again, are much more vulnerable to trafficking. In many cases, families willingly give up their children to middlemen in the hope that they will have a better life elsewhere and also in return for money.
Children are, also, often are caught in situations of domestic violence, which is rising at this time, with women being trapped at home and frustration and anger levels among former breadwinners being exacerbated. Many children are living with relatives, as their parents migrate to cities to look for work, making them vulnerable to abuse. Street children have been left with very little support even from non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), leaving them open to sexual and substance abuse and trafficking.
The government has to figure out more proactive ways to save children from the dangers that the virus has heightened. The police have to be trained to be more alert to following up on cases of children going missing or being trafficked. A major complaint in pre-Covid-19 days from parents was that the police didn’t take them seriously when they reported missing children. They were normally sent back home as the police felt that the child had run away or, in the case of adolescent girls, eloped, and, therefore, did not file FIRs in time. This must change.
At the same time, trafficking and child abuse must be treated as more than just a legal problem. It has to be tackled at the community level. Local bodies such as panchayats and women’s self-help groups should be roped in to map vulnerable families who are unable to take care of children.
With schools closed and with this mid-day meal schemes becoming infrequent, if at all, despite the best efforts of the government, existing networks must be energised and funded to ensure at least one nutritious meal a day for the child who is at home. The government must also step up its fortified meal scheme, something that NGOs such as Naandi Foundation had done effectively for years before; as with many worthwhile schemes, it was shut down. I visited a kitchen run by Naandi in Hyderabad some years ago and found that a simple introduction such as fortified soya milk resulted in huge improvements in health for children.
While the focus on medical resources and personnel cannot be compromised, the issue of protecting children and helping them come through this crisis cannot be given secondary place. The infrastructure exists in the form of various community organisations. The government must engage with them as well as the police to make sure that children’s safety, their health and nutritional well-being are not overlooked during this crisis.
The views expressed are personal