COVID Has Undone Child Rights Progress. Here’s What Govt Must Do

Schools are shut; safe spaces where children expressed themselves & reached out for help aren’t accessible anymore.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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Child rights are those rights that an individual possesses by virtue of being a child. The journey towards achieving child rights is a journey to not only help children survive, but also thrive and transform into the best versions of themselves.

When the world was hit by COVID-19, no one was prepared for it. The world went into a stupor. Self-preservation was an overriding concern. But it appeared that there was a silver lining, as the direct impact of the virus on children looked limited. Gradually, reality began to dawn upon us –– that the indirect impact on children, especially those from lower income countries and communities, was likely to be profound.

It is now believed that the progress made by nations in the last 5-10 years to improve child mortality rates, maternal survival, universal schooling and to reduce child labour has been reversed.

Services Of Over 1 Million 1.4 Anganwadis Are Disrupted. Where Will Newborns & Mothers Go?

According to UNICEF, under-5 (U5) mortality in India dropped from 60 to 37 between 2010-2018. This made us believe that India would be able to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on U5 mortality. However, as per a study published in The Lancet Global, an additional 12,00,000 under-five deaths could occur in just six months of the pandemic in 118 low income countries, of which 3,00,000 additional deaths are estimated to be in India, thereby wiping out past progress.

UNICEF estimates 20 million babies are expected to be born in India between March-December 2020. What implications does this have for mothers and the newborns, when services at the 1.4 million anganwadis across the country are disrupted?

At the anganwadi and the maternal and child health (MCH) / primary health care (PHC) centres, pregnant women availed ante-natal check-ups which comprised of regular monitoring of weight, blood pressure, urine and blood test. They also received iron, folic acid and calcium tablets, along with take-home rations.

During pregnancy, two shots of tetanus toxoid vaccination were given, which are a major intervention for preventing neonatal tetanus and maternal and child mortality.

These critical services are unlikely to reach these pregnant women under lockdown conditions. Furthermore, with public transportation being unavailable, it became a challenge for pregnant women to reach health facilities on time for child birth.

‘The Lancet’ estimates an additional 39 percent maternal deaths due to decline in healthcare in six months in India.
Snapshot
  • ‘The Lancet’ estimates an additional 39 percent maternal deaths due to decline in healthcare in six months in India.
  • With almost 40 percent of children in India already malnourished, the COVID pandemic could further exacerbate malnutrition due to lack of mid-day meals (which govt schools would offer).
  • The International Monetary Fund indicates a rise in extreme poverty from 84 million to 132 million people –– which will cause a spike in child labour.
  • Schools are shut, so safe spaces where children engaged, expressed and reached out for help are no longer accessible.

COVID Lockdown Stopped Mid-Day Meals For Children

Inability to reach hospitals for delivery on time, could have huge ramifications for the newborn –– that is, if the newborn and the mother survive. A newborn delivered at an institution is weighed, checked for risk conditions and receives immunisation for Polio, BCG and Hepatitis-B. Institutions also register births, unlike home deliveries. It is quite obvious that a large number of newborns during COVID times are going to miss out on these inputs that are critical for their survival and development.

Government schools in India used to provide mid-day meals to 120 million school-going children. Another 95 million children under 6 years of age received supplementary nutrition at anganwadi centres (AWC) across the country. With schools and AWCs closed, millions of children have been deprived of this source of nutrition. With almost 40 percent of children in India already malnourished, the COVID pandemic could further exacerbate malnutrition.

Schools Are Shut, No Safe Spaces For Kids To Escape To

Let’s look at child labour statistics. India made significant progress in reducing the scourge of child labour, as it declined by 2.6 million between 2001-2011 (Census 2001, Census 2011). Now, the UN warns of a first rise in child labour in two decades. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicates a rise in extreme poverty from 84 million to 132 million people –– which will cause a spike in child labour, since a 1 percent increase in poverty leads to 0.7 percent increase in child labour. This is likely to have an intergenerational impact on childhoods, families, nations and global poverty.

Children are increasingly vulnerable to violence and abuse today. Schools are shut, so safe spaces where children engaged, expressed and reached out for help are no longer accessible.

The most vulnerable groups of children, like street children, those in institutions, in conflict with law, migrant children, trafficked and abandoned children have very limited support.

In India, even child protection services are not fully functional amid the pandemic.

Steps Govt & Civil Society Groups Must Take To Protect Children Amid Pandemic

This pandemic has exposed our society’s structural inequities, and our administration’s failures in disaster response.

I would like to highlight a few emergency actions that we need to take if we want to reclaim some childhoods.

First, we need accurate data on children – how many have migrated to villages, how many are out of school, how many reside in children’s institutions, how many have received immunisations and supplementary nutrition, and how many home births took place? Where are our street children and homeless children?

We must know the size of the damage so that we can fix it.

We need to strengthen families through strengthening the MGNREGA and public distribution system. Budgets allocated for child welfare should be effectively utilised and where possible, augmented through inter-ministerial convergence. Core services for children, like anganwadis, Child Welfare Committees and Child Care Institutions should be declared as ‘essential’ services –– and be expected to continue in areas under lockdown.

States should come up with the staggered opening of schools so that mid-day meals as well as learning opportunities for children are restored. 

India needs a clarion call for its children, and she needs you and I to make it.

(Geeta Chopra, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor, Human Development, University of Delhi. She is an academician, researcher, author and activist in the field of early childhood development, child rights and childhood disability. She can be found on LinkedIn here. She’s accessible on Instagram here. She is also available over email: drgeetachopra@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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