Throughout the world, children have been severely affected by the social and economic turbulence caused by Covid-19. The pandemic unleashes a perfect storm into the lives of most marginalised children. A single disaster can produce a cascading effect that would create an unforeseen chain of secondary or multiple risks. For example, the recent Cyclone Amphan in West Bengal and Odisha caused serious damage to life, property and livelihood of millions of families. The relief measures could not reach many because of the Covid restrictions. Children are hugely affected at the intersection of the cyclone and the pandemic. Similarly, the poor in other povertystricken regions are at an increased risk of disasters. Flooding, for instance, in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region is likely to aggravate the living conditions of millions of slum-dwellers who are already enduring the attacks of Covid-19.
The pandemic has hit children in poor families the most. The exodus of migrant workers from hostile metropolises has severely affected the well-being of their children who took arduous road trips to reach their homes in villages. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights has issued an advisory for care and protection of children moving with migrant families, and children living on streets and childcare institutions during the pandemic. Despite efforts to ensure that no child is left in difficult circumstances, media coverage showed that children forced to travel long distances suffered extreme exhaustion and scarcity of food, water and medical aid, together with increased exposure to virus. Amid Covid-19, homelessness is another serious concern facing the poorest, as many of them have violently faced eviction. Many families who reside in rented houses have been thrown out of the houses with their children.
The pandemic is forcing India’s children out of school and into farms and factories to work, worsening a child-labour problem that was already one of the most dire in the world.
It’s difficult to quantify the number of children affected since the pandemic erupted, but civil society groups are rescuing more of them from forced labour and warn that many others are being compelled to work in cities because of the migrant labour shortages.
Even before the outbreak, India was struggling to keep children in school. A 2018 study by DHL International GmBH estimated that more than 56 million children were out of school in India ~ more than double the combined number across Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The cost to India’s economy, in terms of lost productivity, was projected at $6.79 billion, or 0.3 per cent of gross domestic product. Of those children not in school, 10.1 million are working, either as a ‘main worker’ or as a ‘marginal worker,’ according to the International Labour Organization.
Global child labour had been gradually declining in the past two decades, but Covid threatens to reverse that trend, according to the ILO. As many as 60 million people are expected to fall into poverty this year alone, and that inevitably drives families to send children out to work. A joint report by the ILO and United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that a 1 percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 percentage point increase in child labour.
In India, home to more young people than any other country in the world, this lost generation of children will have substantial effects on Asia’s third-largest economy: lower productivity and earning potential, unrealized tax revenue, increased poverty levels and pressure for more government handouts.
Bonded labour, where people are forced to work for creditors to pay off their loans, is another avenue where families send their children to work. A total of 591 children were rescued from forced work and bonded labour from different parts of India during the lockdown by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a civil society group on children’s rights.
Once the lockdown is lifted and normal manufacturing activity resumes, factory owners will look to cover their financial losses by employing cheap labour. NGOs point to the fact that the real spike in child labour is yet to come. When economic activity begins accelerating, there is a risk of returning migrants taking children along with them to the cities. When hotels reopen, construction work starts, the railways get back on track, when everything opens up, this community that has returned will be the main source to take children to the cities. Children may be seen as a stop-gap measure to fill jobs left vacant.
The crisis has intensified society’s indifference towards the most vulnerable. Children of sex workers, invisible and forgotten, are now facing a fresh onslaught of Covid-19. Sex workers, many of them single parents, are now without a livelihood. Stigma and criminalisation of their work makes it hard for them to find alternative sources of income. Their children are at increased risk of malnutrition, exploitation, and abuse at the hands of the traffickers.
Covid-19 triggers an impending psychological disaster for many other children in distress. Survivors of child abuse are out of the frying pan and into the fire. Children rescued from traffickers’ grip are likely to be driven back into the dead marsh, surrounded by predators looking for opportunities to exploit economic adversity. As Covid-19 has added insult to the injuries of many children, they must become our priority while we respond to the pandemic.
In India, even before the pandemic hit, millions of children were left to absorb the accumulated risks piled up by extreme poverty and social injustice. Children in India’s informal urban areas, particularly those on streets, are exposed to hazardous environmental conditions of dilapidated housing, poor sanitation, vector- and water-borne diseases, toxic air, and land pollution.
Children in conflict-affected areas who are spending their childhood amid bombs and shells are familiar with disruptions due to curfew, riots, and Internet ban. Children in refugee camps have experienced displacement, exploitation, abuse, and trafficking. These resilient childhoods had their distinct battles to win on an everyday basis. Across spatial and temporal dimensions, there are many more childhood narratives of deep vulnerabilities and resilience at the same time.
In the Covid context, these children are mostly viewed as passive recipients of sufferings and rarely as active citizens of society. While we envisage a new normal future for ourselves, these children are still waiting for a “normal” future to unfold. These little architects of resilience are often “seen but not heard”. Our thematic representations of children’s issues amid the pandemic are mainly devoted to the portrayal of miseries rather than having a discourse on child rights. While responding to the pandemic, it will be an act of justice if we pay heed to children’s perspectives.
In India, Covid-19 has disclosed the ever-present rifts of child rights application during a humanitarian emergency. From the rights perspective, the vulnerabilities to any crisis exacerbate when an individual or group is denied agency. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes the right of every child to give their opinions freely on matters concerning them and obliges state parties to ensure that children’s voices are heard and taken seriously. India has an impressive set of laws and policies which entail children’s right to be heard and participation in all processes and decisions affecting their interests. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015 and the National Policy for Children, 2013 affirm this valuable right.
Despite these policy commitments, children’s right to be heard and participate remained infringed. On Realization of Children’s Rights Index (RCRI), showing the level of realisation of children’s rights in 196 countries, India stands at the 149th position, indicating a “difficult situation” concerning respect to child rights. The political commitments to include children’s voices remain rhetoric. It is merely tokenism when children are consulted superficially as representatives and adults make all the decisions.
The long-standing regressive cultural attitudes perpetuate the belief that children are fragile, inexperienced and powerless, thus, unworthy to form opinions. Adults’ paternalism meddles in children’s experiences, questions the credibility of their ideas, and determines priorities for them. Children’s “voice” is often treated with derision. In Covid times, there is a noticeable sluggishness in exploring and propagating children’s commentaries – their versions of realities amid the pandemic. There are only a handful of organisations, media, and advocacy groups that take real efforts for active listening and acting upon what children have to say. We have too little evidence of children speaking out their experiences, needs, ideas, and opinions in diverse settings amid the pandemic. Until now, we have not seen an ideological shift from sympathy-relief approach to participation-empowerment approach when dealing with matters affecting children.
It is incumbent upon government partners, civil society, professionals, and the public to provide children with a platform to express their perspectives and become active partners. There is a need to identify the keys to unlock their capacities to contribute to their well-being through opinion formation, expression, and action. Children’s voices must be sought and integrated into planning on matters of public health, school, social services, media use, and juvenile justice. Children’s narrations of experiences must be documented to gain deeper insights into their world. It is time to strengthen children’s expressions, ideas, and skills through deep engagements. This would give us scope for critical inquiry into multiple childhoods.
The writer is with Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management (EIILM)Kolkata. The views are persona