In the first 11 days of the lockdown due to COVID-19, the helpline for children in distress received 3.07 lakh calls of which 92,105 calls were about abuse and violence. Biswajeet Banerjee speaks with NGOs and experts to tell you more
Ramesh’s father Lalji (name changed) is a daily wage earner. But once the lockdown was announced he lost his daily earnings. With every extension of the lockdown the struggle for the family to eat two square meals a day became tough. In the last week of April, when Government was yet to open sale of liquor, Lalji managed to buy cheap liquor and returned home in an inebriated state. When his wife questioned him, he would pick a fight. When Ramesh, 12, intervened he was beaten black and blue. He was saved by his neighbours who called the police.
This is not a solitary case. There are thousands of such cases where cries of children are drowned in the silence of lockdown. They are hungry. They are frustrated and are confined to the four walls of their house with no hope in sight. They are too small to understand the change world is going through because of COVID-19. But these forced changes have made them cranky and stressful and thus are subjected to more abuse.
“It is the child who has become the target of violence within the family. Band darwazo ke pichchey hinsa badhdhi hee hai lockdown mein. (Behind closed doors cases of violence have only gone up during this lockdown,” Sangeeta Sharma, member of Child welfare Committee in Lucknow, says.
She tells you that a child is in lot of stress right now because he is not able to meet his peers. Locked in one room he can’t expect all the things from parents and what he expects, he is not getting. “Before the lockdown was enforced a child had a lifestyle where there was freedom. But now the life has changed. When he yearns for the same freedom he is being scolded. Parents shout at him and sometimes even beat him. Believe me, the agonising cry of children is emanating from every lane and colony across India but we are not in a position to help them,” Sharma tells you.
The NGOs and experts working in this field agree that the number of child abuse cases have gone up during the lockdown. There are measures imposed to slow the spread of Coronavirus but, however, there is nobody to look at those who are victims in their own home, there is no hope for them or any measures in place to prevent their abuse. Factors like poverty, domestic violence, lack of recreation facilities for children or a father with a vice for alcohol or drugs are the reasons behind child abuse. This is because in the lockdown parents and children are forced to stay indoors for days on end.
The four-walls of the house are no longer safe for the young ones because they are also a witness to domestic violence. Additional Director General of Police Anju Gupta who heads the 1090 Women Powerline, the wing of Uttar Pradesh police meant to protect women, says that before the lockdown they used to receive approximately 7,100 calls per day which has gone up to 8,700 calls during lockdown. The effect of domestic violence on children has a tremendous role to play on his psyche. They are likely to develop behavioural problems like regression and they many start living in constant state of fear.
Sharma says situation is different in case of children. “It is true that we are not getting complaints in large volumes. It does not mean that crime against a child is not happening. The number is there but we have no information and are unable to reach those in immediate need of help,” Sharma tells you.
According to her, the number is much higher than the normal average what they see because this is the time when all the family members are at home. It is a ticking time bomb, essentially, for victims of domestic violence, children who are abused and neglected. “We have seen a large decline in the calls coming in for abuse and neglect of children, and we know that ground reality is different,” she says.
To buttress her point, she says the Lucknow unit of Child Welfare Committee received 36 cases in January 2020, 40 in February, 43 in March and just 16 in April this year. This is the trend in Lucknow, and believe me this trend can be replicated for India. Everywhere the scenario is the same, she says.
Surojit Chatterjee of Save the Children tells you that with an increase in phases of lockdown life has become more restrictive making it difficult for children. “They are experiencing drastic changes in their daily schedules. They were used to going out and playing with friends. Now, they are now confined to their homes under the watchful eyes of their parents for longer durations thus making them irritable, cranky and stressed out,” he said.
Chatterjee opines that there are many children whose suffering is going unnoticed because schools are closed and they are away from the “eyes, and ears, and love of teachers” and other people who are required to report their concerns about the treatment of children.
“Though I do not have the numbers, the risks to children from domestic abuse have been heightened by the Coronavirus lockdown, with victims getting little or no respite from their abusers,” Chatterjee says. “People talk about domestic violence but we forget the children who are often the forgotten victims of domestic abuse,” he says.
Sarita (name changed) came to Lucknow for studies and was staying in a hostel. After lockdown she went to her aunt’s house in Lucknow where she was beaten up. She lodged a complaint with the police who informed the Childline and later referred her to Child Welfare Committee.
Take the case of Sushma (name changed), 9. Her father, a daily wage earner, has lost employment because of lockdown. The family was totally dependent on charity or community kitchen which operated in their locality in Kanpur. For some reason the kitchen stopped providing food. She was hungry. She has not eaten for two days. Failing to bear hunger pangs, Sushma asked her mother for food. The frustrated mother beat her daughter black and blue. Her cries drew the attention of neighbours who called an NGO that works with children.
Childline India received 4.6 lakh complaints in 21 days of which intervention was carried out in 9,385 cases. Of this around 20 per cent account for child protection aspects (protection from abuse). According to a study by the NGO — Save The Children -- there are over 20 lakh children who are living in the streets under abject poverty. Around 80 per cent of them do not have legal document denying them access to social entitlements.
“It is felt that a large number of children may not have had opportunities to report their distress as they may not have access to mobile phones, their friends, teachers or other concerned adults. At this situation, not only we are getting less information but rescuing them is also a gigantic task. Because of pandemic situation commutation is a problem. However, communities are fast quarantining themselves, and are not allowing any outsider to enter their villages; therefore, they find it difficult to rescue a child from such communities,” spokesperson of Childline India says.
It said: “Shelter for the child rescued is also an issue in some districts as the child care institutions are hesitant to receive new children. The rehabilitation aspects are getting delayed due to lack of railways and other transport.”
Child abuse in India one of the biggest social stigmas. As per the definition given by UNICEF, violence can be physical and mental abuse and injury, neglect or negligent treatment, exploitation and sexual abuse. The violence may take place in homes, schools, orphanages, residential care facilities, on the streets, in the workplace, in prisons and in places of detention.
Two top lawyers of Supreme Court Summer Sodhi and Aarzoo Aneja have written a letter to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde requesting him to take suo motu cognizance of increase in the number of child abuse cases during the nationwide lockdown. The letter says that though during the lockdown the overall rate of crime had gone down, incidents of abuse and violence faced by children have risen.
“Under normal circumstances, it is not considered safe for abused children to stay at home as it might result in further suffering at the hands of their own family members. However, during the lockdown, the danger to these children is exacerbated, as they are unable to leave their homes. The isolation has further shattered support networks, making it even more difficult for the victims to seek help or escape,” the letter said.
It said child abuse incidents have already risen in India due to the lockdown and will keep increasing if steps are not taken immediately to protect and support the victims of child abuse. “This Court is, therefore, requested to take cognizance of the issue of protecting the rights of children and their safety in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The need of the hour is to issue guidelines to various authorities for protecting children from violence and abuse, which is inflicted upon them by their own family members/relatives/care takers, taking measures to ensure that counselling is made available to them. The NGOs/ Organisations which work in the field of child welfare need to be mobilised at this time of child abuse pandemic. Hence the present letter petition,” it said.
The letter further says that the person committing the abuse is putting in danger the life of a child, and clearly violating the fundamental right of life and the right to live with dignity of that child, which is a facet of Article 21 of the Constitution of India as held by this court in plethora of cases.
“Violence in any form has a very deep impact on the overall development of the child. Child abuse results in actual or potential harm to the child's health, survival, development and dignity,” Anjani Tiwari of Salam Balak Trust (SBT), says.
The SBT works with street children in Delhi. Tiwari is witness to street fights these children undergo. Public places like stadium, railway stations and bus stations are their home. They live there, earn their livelihood through begging and slowly start taking drugs. The streets fights have made them arrogant and any change in their lifestyle like the present day, lockdown has a deepening impact on their psyche.
“On the third day of the lockdown I saw children pelting stones at the passing by vehicles near Jamuna Bazar. This was part of withdrawal symptom. For two days they did not get drugs they were used to and were showing their anger by pelting stones,” Tiwari says.
These children sniff a piece of cloth soaked in Whitener which they say gives them a good sleep. “They live in a world of their own. If they do not get Whitener they sniff a solution used in puncture repair,” Tiwari shares.
The disturbing fact, he says is that he could not see these children anywhere now. Railway stations and bus station which used to be their abode are deserted. The big temples where they used to beg are closed. “I know the children are being abused in Delhi. On the pretext of giving drugs they might be coaxed into illegal activities. They need medical help immediately. Their cries are deafening, but we need an ear to hear that,” Tiwari tells you.
The Chairman National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) Priyank Kanungo says that generally these street children were seen on roads but they can’t be seen anywhere today. Either they have left for their native places or have gone to some other place. “We do not know where they are,” he says.
Petty excuses for abuse
The lockdown fatigue has started setting in resulting in increase in domestic violence which experts say, can lead to a bigger conflict if not stopped now.
Suresh Mukund, a police officer says that almost all the police stations are now getting complaints about domestic violence where husbands are even beating up wife for not putting garlic in daal. The wife dialed 112 and police was forced to intervene. The violence often leaves behind an unknown victim that is the child in that family.
Lenin Raghuvanshi Convener of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) said that as people are almost locked in their homes small fights are common. But with people losing their income they go into depression lead to domestic fight. “But it is the child who is the real victim of these violence which are manifestation of lockdown fatigue. The adults are vocal and in case of violence can raise their voice. But it is the child who not only gets the beating for no fault of his but also fails to lodge complaint because during lockdown he does not know where to go,” Raghuvanshi says.
Dr SK Pandey, Medical Officer of Ram Manohar Lohia Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow said that lockdown fatigue among people is because of restrictions being imposed on them. ‘It is the monotony of routine that is making people restive. There is no change for them. They are now cranky and get angry at any small pretext,” Dr Pandey says.
He says such situation sometimes leads to depression and anxiety. “A study carried out by researchers from the University of Sheffield and Ulster University, shows rise in rates of anxiety and depression when restrictions are imposed. The increase was quite marked when announcement of lockdown was made in Britain. Similar could be the case in India too where anxiety increased after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 21-day lock down. This resulted in panic buying. And the subsequent increase in lockdown aggravated the situation further,” Dr Pandey says.
TERMS TO KNOW
- Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity, in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.
- Physical abuse of a child is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction or lack of interaction, which is reasonably within the control of a parent or person in a position of responsibility, power, or trust. There may be single or repeated incidents.
- Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that s/he does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violate the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by an activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power; the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of other person. This may include but is not limited to: the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; and, the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.
- Emotional abuse includes the failure to provide a developmentally appropriate, supportive environment, including the availability of a primary attachment figure, so that the child can develop a stable and full range of emotional and social competencies commensurate with his/her personal potential, and in the context of the society in which the child dwells. There may also be acts toward the child that cause or have a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. These acts must be reasonably within the control of the parent or person in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power. Acts include restriction of movement, patterns of belittling, denigrating, scapegoating, threatening, scaring, discriminating and ridiculing.
- Neglect is the inattention or omission on the part of the caregiver to provide for the development of the child in all spheres: health, education, emotional development, nutrition, shelter and safe living conditions, in the context of resources reasonably available to the family or caretakers and causes, or has a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. This includes the failure to properly supervise and protect children from harm as much as is feasible.
(Source: Report of the Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention, WHO).