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COVID-19 and children

Worldwide, children have been profoundly affected by the social and economic upheavals caused by COVID-19. The pandemic unleashed 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 instance, 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 poverty-stricken 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 convulsions of COVID-19.

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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 the efforts to ensure that no child is left in difficult circumstances, the 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 crisis has intensified society’s indifference towards the most vulnerable. Children of sex workers, the most 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 make it hard for them to find an alternative source of income. Their children are at an increased risk of malnutrition, exploitation, and abuse at the hands of the traffickers.

Additionally, COVID-19 triggers an impending psychological disaster for many other children in distress. Survivors of child abuse are out of the frying pan and back 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.

Architects of resilience

In India, even before the pandemic hit, millions of children were left to absorb the accumulated risks piled up overtime by extreme poverty and social injustice. Children in India’s informal urban spaces, 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 much 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 the 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 us, 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 we are responding to the pandemic, it is an act of justice that we pay heed to children’s perspectives.

Reclaiming voices

In India, COVID-19 has disclosed the ever-present fissures 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 legislation 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 strongly 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. It accounts for non-participation.

The long-standing regressive cultural attitudes perpetuate the belief that children are fragile, inexperienced, and powerless beings, so they are unworthy to form opinions. Adults’ paternalism meddles in children’s experiences, question the credibility of their ideas, and determine priorities for them. Children’s "voice" for matters concerning them 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 vulnerable 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 their experiences require documentary evidence to gain deeper insights into their world. It is time to strengthen children's expressions, ideas, and skills through deep engagements, particularly with most vulnerable children. This would give us a scope for critical inquiry into the multiple childhoods.

Media is one of the most powerful tools for accentuating "voices" of resilient childhoods and propagating its translation into actions. Jean Jacques Rousseau once famously wrote, "Childhood has its own way of seeing, thinking, and feeling, and nothing is more foolish than to try to substitute ours for theirs." Let us use these troubled times as an opportunity to empower our children with a "voice".

The author is an Assistant Professor at Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University, Delhi.

deepshikha@aud.ac.in


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Printable version | Aug 5, 2021 12:18:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/covid-19-and-children/article32124061.ece

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