Representational image. (AP) Exclusive
Representational image. (AP)

When our children are left vulnerable

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights says 3,621 children have been orphaned since the start of the pandemic. With over 360,000 deaths so far, this is likely an underestimation
UPDATED ON JUN 11, 2021 03:32 PM IST

It started with a WhatsApp message. “A 2 months old baby boy and a 2 yrs old baby girl [sic] need a home because their parents have passed away due to Covid,” read the message. The kids were up for adoption. There was a phone number and a request to “kindly share it as much as possible”.

Covid-19’s catastrophic second wave was raging. Nobody knew how many were dying. Suddenly, bleeding heart pleas were popping up everywhere. A distressing reality now had a convenient hashtag: #CovidOrphans. On May 4, Smriti Irani, minister for women and child development (WCD) had to intercede and remind people that it is “illegal to give or take orphan children of anyone else in adoption.”

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights says 3,621 children have been orphaned since the start of the pandemic. With over 360,000 deaths so far, this is likely an underestimation. Nevertheless, the government says it will “look after” these orphans, even as questions remain about how such children will be identified given that so many Covid deaths have not been officially documented. Still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a 10 lakh fund, free education and other benefits including health insurance is welcome. But it is not enough.

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It is not enough because it does not articulate the many other serious vulnerabilities that children face because of the pandemic. When, for instance, parents lose their livelihoods, there is less food for the family and children go hungry. An environment of economic stress could lead to violence and abuse in the home. With schools shut, children are cut off from their peers and learning. There’s a surge in dropouts, child labour and early marriage. A second wave has only compounded these problems and there are very real fears that decades of progress in gender and child rights are being rolled back.

“These are hard problems that require attention beyond a hashtag,” says Enakshi Ganguly of child’s rights organisation, Haq. Adds Nicole Rangel, co-founder of Leher that works in Madhubani district, Bihar: “There are so many families where both parents are alive but the children are equally vulnerable.”

Hashtag CovidOrphans has had one unintended consequence: new focus on child rights that has been largely absent from any mainstream discussion. This past week, the National Human Rights Commission issued a detailed advisory asking for stakeholders to be better prepared especially with fears of a third wave around the corner.

Touching on health, education, child care institutions, and orphaned children, the advisory calls upon the state administration to “take steps for supporting families economically that have lost either of the parents”. It has, in addition, asked for the universalisation of digital facilities for online access to education and the dissemination of the existing counselling service available at 1 800-121-2830 to provide psychological support for affected children.

The loss of even one parent is devastating. But in a pandemic this brutal, death is sometimes not the only loss.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender

The views expressed are personal

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