Child rights activists and volunteers are gearing up for a significant rise in reporting of child abuse cases after the ongoing national lockdown is lifted. They suspect cases of child rights violations have gone up during the lockdown as all are confined within the four walls of the house due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Manjeer Mukherjee, senior director, Arpan, a Mumbai based NGO working for child welfare, says that in situations of anxiety and stress, it is likely that abuse of children, including sexual abuse can increase. “The pandemic has created a situation where there is uncertainty all around. The lockdown has restricted movement, led to lack of income or has the potential to do so; led to overcrowding at homes with many people being around 24×7. It has also left school going children out of school. All of this adds to the stress and anxiety creating high-stress home environments and children are generally exposed to diverse forms of abuse. Also, for a significant number of abusers especially in cases of incest, their sexual involvement with children is situational and occurs as a result of life stresses – hence, there is a high probability of sexual abuse increasing. However, at the same time there is also lack of privacy at homes because of crowding which might act as a safeguard against sexual abuse. The situation is aggravated by children’s lack of access to child care organisations and inability to connect with them from a safe space as the abuser is around them,” she says.
Vasudeva Sharma N V, executive director, Child Rights Trust (CRT), says, “In the past, during the calamities such as floods and droughts, we have observed a rise in the number of cases of child abuse. In this pandemic as well, there could be a rise in the cases but not many are able to come forward to report them. My colleague in Mangalore came across about eight incidents where children ran away from their families as they were being abused by their parents. Parents expect kids to be quiet the whole day while they are working and busy with other chores. They cannot expect kids to be always obedient to them.” He observes that as the sale of liquor has been prevented due to the coronavirus pandemic, it could have two effects. “Firstly, as adults are not drinking, there could be no incident of harassment. Secondly, as heavy drinkers are not able to access liquor, they could become abusive and harass family members,” he says.
There have been cases of child marriages being reported too. Nagasimha Rao, a child rights activist, says poverty is leading to more cases of child marriages. “During the lockdown, people in large numbers cannot be at a function and many people are taking advantage of the situation to perform illegal child marriages. They know many friends and relatives cannot visit and officials cannot pay a visit too. But in case any such untoward incident is happening, community members should complain so that the child rights activists can help,” he says. Sharma adds the government should ensure strict enforcement of law so that no one is able to hire child labourers or get children married during and after the lockdown. Suspecting that there could be a rise in the cases of child rights issues including child trafficking, he says the volunteers are being prepared to help the cause. “We are holding discussions on how to get accessibility to the children and understand if they have been subjected to any kind of violence,” he says.
Swagata Raha, consultant, Enfold Proactive Health Trust that focuses on building safe and inclusive community, says the huge challenge at the moment is to reach out to the children. “Child helpline should be considered an essential service across the country. The community should also be vigilant and come forward to report any offences. There have been also some suggestion that the schools could run the child helpline numbers on a ticker while they conduct online classes so that children can call on those numbers in case they are facing any abuse. The authorities could also come up with some measures to help file complaints and FIRs online,” she says.
Dr. Mukherjee adds that the government can also run a media campaign on child abuse, highlighting that help is available through the helpline number 1098. “As individuals we can be more aware and vigilant of child abuse both online and offline and can initiate conversation on personal safety with children and impart them with knowledge and skills to prevent child sexual abuse and seek support in case of any violations,” she says.
Ensure online safety for kids
In addition, online sexual abuse may also be on the rise with predators lurking on social media. “Children are online now more than before and online classes are ongoing. A friend’s 10 year old daughter got one such message asking her to strip, take pictures and send it to a predator who contacted her. This was reported to cybercrime. Children may not inform adults if they are being blackmailed or caught in the web.
Parents and guardians can to be made aware of these issues and asked to be vigilant. Children can be given internet safety awareness by parents, teachers and the community,” says Suja Sukumaran, support person for CSA & POCSO from Enfold Trust.
Decentralisation of Child Rights Commission
The Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) said they have decentralised the functioning of the commission to seven regions to tackle the issue and it is being monitored by a commission member and district development officer. Anthony Sebastian, chairperson, KSCPCR says, “We have stopped a good number of child marriages in the North Karnataka district and Mysuru. We are giving directions to the concerned departments on how to address the issues. We are also looking at providing wider and better access for the complainants.”
KSCPCR had also released a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in October last year under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012. The focus is to provide child sensitive processes at every level while working towards speedy investigation and trial, keeping the best interests of the child. All the stakeholders such as lawyers, police and judges are being trained in the SOP by the respective departments.
Recommended: Queries on mental health of kids triple during lockdown
Akhila DamodaranNational, News