Women and Child Development Minister Yashomati Thakur speaks to TABASSUM BARNAGARWALA about the steps taken to mitigate Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on children and women and steps being taken by the state government to curb child marriages and help sex workers.
What are the immediate priorities of the women and child development (WCD) department?
Malnutrition among children aged till six years remains our concern, so does the health of pregnant and lactating women. Protecting women and ensuring they have healthy babies is important. Our focus is ‘Suposhit and Surakshit Maharashtra (well-nourished and safe Maharashtra)’. Deinstitutionalisation is what we are looking at right now. Children who live in shelter homes have psychological problems. If we have more foster homes rather than shelter homes, children will grow up healthy. But that is also not an easy task to accomplish. Foster care is also complicated… we need to carefully choose foster parents.
What has been the effect of this pandemic on women and children?
The pandemic has affected children and women the most. Men can still step out of their home in evenings. But most women don’t have that option. It has been a difficult time for them. Tolerance levels have gone down during the pandemic. We have seen an uptake in domestic violence. In many places, we had to set up quarantine centres for men committing domestic violence. We just picked them up and sent them to quarantine centres.
What challenges did the department face during the pandemic?
There were so many women coming up with complaints of domestic violence, we had to counsel them. Every shelter home has a counsellor. We had to also counsel the counsellors because there were financial crunches. Funds were not being released even for the watchmen and counsellors at shelter homes. Keeping their spirits high was a challenge. We had funds for food but there was no money for salaries. And nobody could help it because there was no revenue generation. However, the salaries have recently been released.
The state witnessed disruptions in anganwadi services in the early months of lockdown. How are things now?
The lockdown was announced all of a sudden. If we had more time, we would have been prepared. Schools and anganwadis had to be shut down. It took a few days to decide that hot meals could be converted into take home rations (THR). It took 15 days to provide THR to each beneficiary, but after that everybody got the ration.
Nandurbar did not get ration for two months.
It did. The NGOs will complain. Our officers have data where beneficiaries got rations. Problems were faced only in March.
Mid-day meal services were also shut down, which affected children.
That is looked after by the education department. We only supported migrant labourers’ children as well as pregnant and lactating wives. Our beneficiaries increased by 7.2 lakh during the pandemic – most of it comprised migrants.
The number of child marriage cases have risen, so have child labour and child beggary. How is the department planning to intervene?
This is the shadow pandemic that the World Health Organisation talks about. There are issues of unemployment, rise in domestic violence. We are tracking children aged till six years in anganwadis. For teenagers begging or forced into labour, intervention can be provided through shelter homes and beggar’s homes. But we can deal with only those cases that are reported to us. That which is not reported is difficult to be dealt with.
To stop child marriage, we have already formed a committee to draft new rules for the Abolition of Child Marriage Act. Once the committee submits its recommendations, we will consider it. The new rules will make punishment for child marriage more stringent. But preventing child marriage is not our duty alone, we need social support, support from other departments and funds to raise awareness.
What are the steps taken to address the rise in domestic violence cases?
We conducted a ‘Cyber-Sakhi’ programme to train women on cyber bullying. We supported mobile phone apps, along with NGOs, to address domestic violence. We have started a few programmes like ‘Stand up Against Violence’ and phone counselling for women facing such issues. Follow-ups are also done on the phone since they can’t physically visit the office due to the pandemic. The easiest way to reach out to women is online now.
Maharashtra is the first state to approve financial aid and ration for sex workers. But on ground, many do not have bank accounts and Aadhaar cards and are unable to avail the benefits.
We had a review meeting on this. The collector is the head of disbursement of funds. We have instructed collectors to negotiate with banks and allow zero balance accounts to be opened. This is a special case and the needful will be done. Of course, it will take some time to resolve the issues but we are tracking the matter.