Q: What has been the biggest impact on children during the Covid-19 lockdown?
A: We know that the direct impact of Covid-19 is generally on older people and people with comorbidities. The impact on children is not as visible but, frankly speaking, women and children are always at greater risk and are more vulnerable to disasters and emergencies.
For children, what is happening is that schools have remained suspended, so marginalized children are not getting access to online learning. More importantly, they have lost access to mid-day meals. Additionally, health services have been suspended. There is no immunization, growth monitoring, tracking of malnutrition, or supplementary nutrition. With the loss of livelihoods courtesy the lockdown, children are not getting adequate food. This, in turn, has made them even more susceptible to disease, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. There is going to be a vicious cycle of disaster for Indian children.
What might happen with the loss of livelihoods is that children might be forced to go to work and support their family’s income. Families may also choose to marry off young children to have fewer mouths to feed. It is not just about the pandemic; whenever it ends, the crisis will still be far from over. As I said, the impact on poor women and children will last longer than other demographics.
Q: As you mentioned, schools are shut and a lot of marginalized children cannot be homeschooled as their parents may not necessarily be educated. Is CRY being able to help in such situations?
A: Yes, many of them are first-generation learners. In places like Mumbai and Delhi, we have volunteers who have started online classes, but the reach is limited because many children do not have smartphones at home, and the parents may not allow them to use one even if they do.
We are also trying to get as many worksheets and workbooks as possible for children who need them, especially for those adolescents who are in a critical standard, such as eighth, ninth, or tenth, where a break from their studies could be extremely detrimental. We are trying to get workbooks across to them so that they can keep practicing and learning.
Q: What is the situation with children of migrant workers? Have you been able to reach out to them?
A: Since we have an extensive intervention program in rural areas and smaller towns, at this point we are assessing the situation on how many people are coming back and how many need intervention.
Remember, they left these places because of a lack of livelihood and, frankly, nothing much has changed. There is still no work available in rural areas. One of the things we are trying to do is to track the people returning to the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), which is an employment guarantee scheme.
There is going to be a problem with migrant children getting re-admission to schools in their native places after they leave the schools in the cities. We need to try and get children back to school. We also have to make sure that these families have access to food, which is critical. One way to ensure that is to enable them to get ration from the PDS (Public Distribution System). Another thing we anyway do in our programs is to encourage having a kitchen garden and grow one’s own food.
We need to do a lot of work to reactivate the health care system too, so that young babies and kids can get immunized, their growth monitored, their malnourishment controlled and, in cases where they are malnourished, give them the nutrition that they need.
The real challenge is with protecting our children. Child labor and child marriage are pressing issues and we need to have a protective network around children. What we are very good at is creating child protection committees in villages. They consist of people from the community itself who monitor crisis situations. We are also trying to build a connection between the police and the community.
Finally, we need to provide agency to children so they can be empowered and are able to make their own decisions; they should be able to say that they want to go to school, that they don’t want to get married or want to work. This is the range of things we are trying to do.
Q: You talked about getting children back to school. Are you also working with schools to make that happen?
A: We don’t simply work with the schools, but also with the district education authorities. Our approach is holistic. We work with not just children, but also with their parents and the authorities, and even try to change the attitude of teachers. Discrimination could go up at this point, and children of marginalized communities might be left out. So it is very important to work with the duty bearers.
Q: There have been news reports about growing violence and crime against children during the lockdown. Can you tell us how we can combat that and is CRY doing something to counter it?
A: This has been a huge challenge, particularly in urban areas where pressure-cooker situations get created because large families are forced to live in compact spaces during the lockdown period. We talk about maintaining physical distance, but it can be challenging to do so in a slum.
There have been attempts by some NGOs to put out helpline numbers along with ration kits and play materials for poor families. Crime against children is not just about violence and abuse; as I said earlier, children may be pushed into hazardous labor and young girls may be forced into marriages, so CRY is focusing on providing a protective network around them to control that.
Q: Are girl children more vulnerable in such situations? It is noticed that if a family has two children – one girl and a boy – they will probably pull out the girl child from school or get her married early.
A: Absolutely. The girl child is always more vulnerable.
So there are a couple of things we do in such scenarios.
We work closely with parents on what we call KAP – knowledge, attitude, and practices. We also create adolescent groups in our programs, and they act as support groups for each other. So, if the group hears that one of their peers is getting married, they take this issue up and try to convince the parents otherwise. If a girl child is being pulled out of school, the support group will go and talk to the parents to get her admitted back.
We have seen some amazing examples of such empowered girls in our program.
Q: Can you tell us specifically about what special efforts CRY is taking during this pandemic?
A: As Spark.Live is supporting us, you know that at this point in time we are focusing on providing relief through our health and hygiene kits, as well as our ration kits.
Once the pandemic is over, we will keep a lot of our current programs, but will also have to look at promoting digital education – because physical distancing is here to stay and children may not be able to go to school regularly. There will be a lot more conversations with the government to get schools restarted.
The other thing that is going to be critical is to make sure that parents are given support. Parents being disabled because of lack of income is sure to have ripple effects on their families and children.
Q: Can you give us a number on how many families or individuals CRY has been able to reach out to during this pandemic in terms of distributing relief?
A: So far, we have managed to reach over 65,000 households and almost 100,000 children.