By Manu Gupta
Covid-19 has endangered the future of 600 million in South Asia, according to a Unicef report. In India, school closures have impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools and 28 million pre-school children in Anganwadi centres. Since the beginning of the lockdown, the Childline India Helpline received almost 4,60,000 calls in 21 days seeking protection against domestic abuse and violence. There was a 50 per cent increase in the number of calls showing a spike in instances of child abuse. Nearly 10,000 of these calls were intervention cases which required Childline staff to reach the children in need of support. Of these, 30 per cent of calls were related to escalation in violence, child sexual abuse, child marriage, and child labour.
Economic distress and alarming growth of domestic violence makes children vulnerable to exploitation, sexual abuse, violence, child labour and trafficking. Children are away from school for a prolonged period which has disrupted their daily routine and support system outside the home. The cancellation of classes, academic backlog, and uncertainty about examinations has an adverse psychological impact on children. Other factors such as staying indoors all day long, adapting to online classes has increased the sense of isolation among children, which is leading to anxiety, depression and disappointment. Increased exposure to screen time, exposure to online abuse, bullying, has severely affected the mental health of adolescents. As of June 2019, only 40 per cent of the population had access to the internet, thus making it extremely difficult for students in rural areas to join online classes, adding to anxiety levels of already-anxious students.
Mental health is often neglected in society. Children are exposed to hazardous environmental conditions such as living in damaged houses, poor sanitation, exposure to water-borne diseases, toxic air, road accidents, experiencing disasters, severe climatic conditions and land pollution. Accessibility has been a major reason leading to school dropouts. Unavailability of safe drinking water, sanitisation practices pose an extreme threat to children’s health. As per reports, in India, around 20 million children under five years of age are suffering from wasting; over 40 million children are chronically malnourished, and nearly 3,00,000 children die in India every year due to poor health service and unavailability of medical help.
A child should feel safe at school, community and wherever he/she goes. Due to the longstanding regressive attitude prevalent in the society, we consider children to be fragile, inexperienced and unworthy of forming any opinion. It is an essential element to reduce systemic vulnerability, one that provides a uniform approach towards any cause. Ensuring the rights of a child lies with each adult citizen as clearly laid in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). To fill this gap, participatory modules need to be developed which will include parents, society and communities as well. Focused action planning, integration of plan, training and capacity building of community needs to be laid out. One should carefully maintain the governance, accountability and enforcement of policies to develop a positive environment for children.
Awareness should be created among teachers, parents, community members, volunteers about how to identify and assess the mental health of children and what will be the impact of the aforementioned stressors on it. Government, civil society, professionals and the public should come forward and provide a platform for children to express their perspectives and become active partners. The need of the hour is to identify and contribute to their wellbeing through opinion formation, expression and action. Children need to be heard while developing matters of public health, school, social services and media use. We need to strengthen children’s expression through deeper engagement.
(The writer is a disaster management specialist from SEEDS [Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society], a non-profit humanitarian organisation, spearheading Honeywell Safe Schools programme in 50 schools of Delhi since 2017 and 100 schools of Uttarakhand since 2019, in collaboration with respective state governments.)
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