Hidden behind the numbers of the dead in India’s second wave of coronavirus are the survivors. Thousands of them are children, who have suddenly lost one or both parents and live now in the grip of sadness, uncertainty and fear. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has reported that as of May 29, 1,742 children have lost both parents and 7,464 have lost one.
Taking note of this epic tragedy, the Supreme Court, NCPCR, the Central and state governments are passing a slew of orders and announcements aimed at protecting these children – ranging from instructions to register every case to promising stipends and educational support to them.
Although slow to start, these steps are encouraging. The test however will be in how announcements are converted into work plans and implemented in the country’s 741 districts in the days to come.
Non-profit Aangan works closely with 900 groups of women and adolescent volunteers on child protection issues in slums and villages across six districts in Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. These groups are keenly aware of ground realities during this catastrophic time. Kiran Kumari, a 16-year-old girl from Pokhriya village in Jharkhand, is optimistic about government assistance for children who have lost their parents.
But considering she does not own a phone, and hers is one of 1,250 villages in the district, 25 kilometers away from the district headquarters, Kiran wonders, “How will the government help me if they do not know about me?” Kiran’s simple question points to where we need to start.
Finding the hard to reach, invisible child
One might assume that 10 years after India introduced the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) we would have community groups primed and ready to do this work. Government investment has however mostly been at the district level while relying on volunteerism at the village or community level where the actual, challenging and complex work is to be done. As a result, there is nobody to respond to the current child protection crisis in places where the children actually are.
To find the Kiran Kumaris hidden away in remote hamlets or teeming slums we have to activate local networks immediately. Some groups already know the kind of granular information that’s needed just by virtue of being locals. While officials are physically distant and disconnected from the ordinary citizen’s life, the community knows who among them has suffered and lost.
Shakuntala Devi, an Aangan volunteer in a slum in the heart of Varanasi, recently discovered that 11-year-old Sonu had been desperately searching for work ever since his father died a few weeks ago. With his mother also critically ill, Sonu now has to look after her as well as his younger siblings.
“If we (the informal volunteer group) had not noticed this young child, I don’t know how many days this family might have gone without food,” Devi said. Shakuntala is right, and Sonu’s example demonstrates the importance of involving local groups who have both physical proximity as well as rapport with local families to undertake the identification.
The work of identifying children becomes more complex in places where there is fear, stigma or silence on issues surrounding COVID-19. In the Hingalganj block of North 24 Parganas, Bengal there are villages where any sign of ill-health in the family is shrouded in secrecy. The stigma and fear attached to a diagnosis of COVID-19 is so severe, people would rather die than get tested out of fear that they will be forced into isolation without any access to food, water, or the community toilet.
Volunteers have said that when a family is suspected of being COVID-19 positive, barricades are built around their home and there is no provision made for their daily sustenance. Whether this is true or not, it speaks to a historic distrust these communities have of local authorities. We see a similar silence in parts of Varanasi and in Jharkhand, particularly in areas dominated by adivasis. While the underlying reasons for apprehension may be location specific, the results are the same – suspicion and silence.
In this atmosphere, asking for information about sickness and death has to be handled sensitively. Moreover, it has to be done with the intention of providing help right away. Local teams who are gathering this information must inform families about the benefits of the disclosure and have the resources and authority to ensure that assistance is made available right away.
Prioritising the best interest of the child
Let’s remember, this is not a census exercise. Working with bereaved children requires more than merely counting and recording cases or providing state compensation at some unknown future time.
As soon as any child who has lost a parent is located, three things have to be guaranteed immediately – shelter, food and safety (health and adult supervision). Ideally, the group entrusted with identifying needy children must be trained and given resources to do this.
In Beur basti in Patna, three children aged 5, 4 and 2 have lost both their parents and are being cared for by their grandfather Nandlal, a man with partial paralysis. Although keen to be part of his grandchildren’s life, their care was beyond his capacity. On discovering this family, Aangan volunteers mobilised neighbours to provide cooked meals to the family every day and help Nandlal with the children’s supervision thereby securing their immediate needs.
After this, they made medium-term plans with him – assisting with emotional support to the confused, bereaved children and helping him identify the children’s aunt as a potential provider of long-term care. Since Nandlal had no means of contacting her, they tackled this problem creatively, by sending a local auto driver with a phone to the aunt’s house to facilitate this important conversation.
The children are now living with their aunt, a poor woman with two children of her own. If the District Child Welfare Committee approves of her as a guardian, then giving her a support-package from the state which includes a monthly stipend for every child as well as health and education support until the children become adults would be very helpful.
This is what it takes, family by family, child by child. Is it going to be possible for notoriously under-resourced District Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) to work with any kind of depth at the scale that is needed? To illustrate the scale – in the last three weeks, Aangan’s volunteers identified 195 children from just three Patna slums (Beur, Gandhi Gali, Naubatpur) who have lost one or both parents. With more than half of the city living in 110 slums and other informal settlements, the number of cases in Patna alone is going to be enormous.
Stipends and financial packages are certainly going to be critical to ensure children’s long-term security, but the government has to simultaneously be prepared to invest in the much-needed human resources and systems necessary for CWCs and other district-level decision-makers to make this a meaningful exercise. So, along with the details about allocations to children, it would be useful for the central and state governments to also earmark the money that will be needed to implement their promises.
Supporting kinship care
Children orphaned by COVID-19 have rightly captured the national imagination. Fears that they may be trafficked or forced into labour or early marriages are not unfounded. There is also widespread skepticism and suspicion about the motivations and intentions of extended families especially now that there is hearsay about state support.
The ugly truth is that the children of the poor, whether they have lost their parents or not, have always been at risk of exploitation. Not because the poor don’t care for their children, but because for millions, daily survival is a challenge, and often they don’t believe there are other options. COVID-19 has exacerbated this ten-fold.
So rather than being cynical, let’s remember this: children have a right to family. This is not just a nice idea, but is a fundamental right guaranteed by both domestic and international law. Family life helps to give children history, connection, identity in addition to physical care and emotional well-being. This is why India’s Juvenile Justice Act upholds the principle of ‘institutionalisation as a measure of last resort’.
As we look at the mounting numbers of children who have lost one or both parents, our commitment to these principles will be tested. It is after all much easier to pick children up from where they are and institutionalise them, than to do the long-term work of investing in Kinship Care which means supporting extended families to care for them.
Kiran Kumari is right when she asks how the government will know her. The work at hand demands understanding the specific needs and challenges of families and communities. If district level funds are to be used to reach the most vulnerable children, then systems have to be geared to do that. It’s unfortunate that because of historic neglect, we have to start building a basic child protection and care system in the middle of a national catastrophe. But as the saying goes – better late than never. Kiran Kumari and thousands of others like her are waiting.
Atiya Bose is CEO and Suparna Gupta is the founder of Aangan, a non-profit that works on child protection in India