By Neha Chopra, 1st Year, LL.B. student at Faculty of Law, Delhi University
"There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow in peace."
– Kofi Annan
Addressing The Impact of Covid-19 on Children
The onset of the #COVID-19 pandemic led to worldwide economic and social activity to halt. The government implemented various measures to combat the pandemic, such as restrictions on social, religious gatherings, confinement at home, closure of non-essential services and schools and colleges for several months in a row. The worldwide imposed restrictions by governments led to severe implications on a person's physical and mental well-being, especially children. The statistical data collected by National Crime Record Bureau's “Crime in India” 2019 report shows that crimes against children increased by 4.5% in the year 2019 as compared to 2018. The piecemeal data provided to us shows the exacerbated vulnerability of children and their exposure to violence more than ever as a consequence of the death of parents, closure of schools and colleges, and the financial crisis in the family.
This article discusses the increased exploitation of children in myriad ways. It assesses how the global and national stakeholders are dealing with the challenges posed by the pandemic to ensure the well-being of children and lacunae in schemes and action plans to protect child rights on-ground realities.
Increasing Risk of Violence During Covid-19
The devastating impact of Covid-19 has worsened the plight of children, especially some of the most vulnerable category who bore the brunt of the lockdown as there is a heightened risk of exploitation, violence and online sexual abuse owing to unfeasibility and interruption in the prevention or prompt redressal by social services, restrictions imposed on movement and travel. The vulnerable child population already suffer the precarious and disproportionate effects on their lives, and now this situation has catastrophic outcomes and posed a greater threat to their survival, therefore, warrant special attention and care in such trying times. Moreover, the detrimental effects will not be limited during the Covid-19 period. It will have a lifelong impact on children's physical and psychological well-being. Post-lockdown, the empirical data and studies show that neglect, physical and sexual abuse, human trafficking and other harmful practices have increased manifold as a result of disruption of livelihoods, uncertainty, mandatory orders to stay inside, social isolation and loss of caregivers.
The pandemic is not just about a health crisis; it has done much more than that. During the pandemic, people have adverse effects on mental health, leading to a rise in anxiety, depression which further led to disruption in family mental peace, domestic abuse witnessed by children. Moreover, the condition of underprivileged children and those who are orphaned has only worsened in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The economically marginalised sections of the country are jobless, scarping along the meagre amount of money provided in the name of covid relief. One of the possible and detrimental impacts is subjection to child labour, trafficking due to the economic crisis faced by families or being left to beg on the streets after the death of their family members. Though various governmental organisations like NCPCR have made some progress in decreasing the cases of child labour, such progress has been undone several months into the pandemic. Findings by ILO and UNICEF suggest that Covid -19 pandemic has triggered the risk of more children being subjected to child labour by the end of 2022.
As families lose livelihoods, they cannot meet basic needs This, in turn, is affecting the education and development of children, especially the girl child. The regressive practices and societal notions in a patriarchal society against women are deep-seated; the education and health of girl children are often undermined and are married off early in especially rural households. The ongoing pandemic has further escalated the situation. The only resort marginalised sections can think of to survive the pandemic is sending the girls back to doing household chores or marrying them off, further intensifying the gender inequalities. According to UNICEF, there will be a spurt in child marriages due to Covid-19. An estimate shows that 10 million more girls are at the risk of child marriage, perpetuating gender discrimination. Child sexual abuse means when a child below the age of 18 years has been subjected to any sexual activity that he cannot fully comprehend or is unable to give or cannot give consent. There has been unprecedented spurge in the cases of online child sexual abuse as many children are spending more time online due to the closure of schools. According to the NCRB report on ‘Crime in India’ 2019, there is an 18.9% rise in cases filed under the POCSO Act. There is also an upsurge in intrafamilial sexual abuse cases during Covid -19 as potential financial pressure, heightened stress and anxiety has hampered the amount of care and protection given to children in pre-covid times. Thus, it could be seen that Covid-19 has impacted the dynamics and interventions with the families in the context of mental agony, neglect, online sexual abuse etc.
Rights of Children under Law
According to Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC), a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless the majority is attained earlier under the law applicable to the child. In India, various legislation and acts provide different requirements of age to define ‘child’. The Constitution of India enumerates certain provisions aimed at the protection, development and welfare of children. Article 15 guarantees making special provisions for safeguarding the rights of children. Article 14, 15,21,23,46 of the Constitution talks about the right to equality, discrimination, protection of life and personal liberty, protection from bonded labour, protection from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. Directive Principle of State Policy (DPSP) includes Articles 39(e), 39(f) and 45, which ensures that children are provided with opportunities and free and compulsory education. Various other specific legislations guarantee rights and protections as guaranteed in Constitution and UNCRC, namely the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act,1986, The Juvenile Justice Act,2000, POCSO Act,2012 etc.
Clarion Call for Implementing Measures
Despite various acts and legislations, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates the risks of an increase in incidents of violence and exploitation of children, and therefore, the need arose for immediate action and measures to ensure protection against all forms of abuse. Recently, The End of Childhood Rankings 2020 was released by the UK- based Save The Children, NGO and India ranked 113 on Global Child Rights Index out of 180 countries. The report is calculated based on factors affecting their childhood such as exclusion from education, child labour, child marriages, early pregnancy etc. shed light on the need for strengthening the existing legislations and making them more effective. Various global stakeholders such as UNICEF, call for global action to protect children from violence on a priority basis by taking measures such as launching awareness campaigns, funding and amending laws, re-designing action plans for SDGs, keeping in mind the impact of the pandemic and also recommended the juvenile justice boards to remain open and hold meetings ensuring the protection of children at greater risk during a pandemic. The ILO has also urged India to ensure social security and target poverty elimination, safeguarding the interest of children. The Covid-19 panned out in the most unpredictable way giving no time for taking conscious measures considering the unavailability of resources. NHRC has issued advisory and guidelines about the protection of children such as online registration of POCSO cases, reporting of cybercrimes via text messages and telephone, measures to ensure the privacy of children, ensuring proper functioning of childcare helplines and mandatory check of child abuse in complaints of domestic violence etc.
It is a jagged pill to swallow, but the ground realities are totally different despite the immediate welfare steps taken by the government to prioritise child protection. The 'PM CARES for Children' scheme provides relief measures for children who have lost their parents due to Covid-19 by bearing the educational and personal requirements, but there are some procedural bottlenecks in the scheme. It would be challenging to prove that they lost their parents due to the pandemic and other factors such as lack of education or awareness. It is, therefore, imperative for the government to check and strengthen the existing legislation and take stringent steps for protecting and safeguarding child Rights.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Child Rights Centre.)