Puja Marwaha puts the spotlight on children of migrant workers as their health and education remain neglected amid the COVID-19 crisis and suggests the way forward
Reverse migration of the workers and the distressing visuals of their hardships while returning to their villages during and after the lockdown have raised some important concerns. Be it the video of a migrant worker improvising a wooden cart and pulling his pregnant wife and infant daughter in their arduous journey, or that of an exhausted woman dragging her suitcase on a highway, while her five year old son, worn out by exhaustion and weariness, sleeps on the suitcase — these visuals stare at us with tell-tale stories of despair.
Asha (name changed), a seven-year-old girl, was in charge of guarding her four-year-old sibling when a relief worker on COVID-19 met her at the bus stop. Waiting patiently for her parents to return home who had gone to look for food from families nearby, the girl revealed that they were originally from Bihar. This little family of road construction workers were living in a slum in Sirathu Tehsil at Kaushambhi district, Uttar Pradesh. They had no idea how to go back to their village. “We don’t even have money for food. How will we travel?” asked the seven-year-old.
The nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the pandemic has changed many lives, mostly those of the marginalised. The media coverage of the sufferings of the underprivileged families was limited to the impact on their daily lives. As we move forward, it is time that we discuss the detailed impact of the decisions that were taken in the past few months on the lives of children. The front-liners at CRY (Child Rights and You), during the relief work have witnessed the helplessness of several children like Asha who stare into a dark, bleak future.
Impact on children’s health and hygiene
Health of children belonging to the lower strata has always been a major concern. Due to lockdown, the situation got worse — children who accompanied their parents while migrating back to their villages faced immense challenge of food and water during travel. The issue of hunger is going to loom large over them in the times to come. Due to the closure of schools, the mid-day meal facility is not in place, which in turn is leading to depleting nutrition levels in children.
They are now deprived of immunisation, basic health provisions and hygiene. ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) and Public Health centres were completely shut during the lockdown, bringing all essential services like Polio vaccinations, routine immunisations, availability of IFA (Iron & Folic Acid) tablets, take home rations (THR) and pre-natal / post-natal care of pregnant women to halt in most of the states. Thus, the risk of undoing the gains of previous years in improving infant and maternal mortality rates and immunisation targets is very high. The suspension of the usual sanitation and hygiene services at the community level have also increased the chances of higher incidences of diarrhoea, jaundice, typhoid and other water-borne diseases.
Plight of the working children
Sadly, many children (especially in the 15-18 age group) migrate alone for work. During the lockdown period, they were either not paid or were deserted by their employers. The children who were working under hazardous conditions are at an extreme risk as the employers cannot disclose their identities (due to the illegal hiring), making their rescue or provision of relief impossible.
Threat to children’s safety and psycho-social well-being
To watch their families suffer creates deep sense of anxiety, insecurity and extreme psychological pressure on children, leaving them vulnerable for life. The long lasting emotional impacts of such incidences on their lives and overall personality are immense. The children of the workers have seen thousands of people around them crying, dying and begging for food and life. Their plight is beyond comprehension.
Additionally, they are at an even higher risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and even trafficking. Trafficking is a huge threat in overcrowded areas, trains/buses, transit camps where such predators are extremely active. Inaccessibility to education at this stage also exposes children to crime and other abuse besides leaving them homeless.
This acute and severe stress on children during their formative years can impact their self-esteem and decision making abilities lifelong, thereby impacting their learning outcomes and retention in school.
Lag in education
Even before the pandemic, the frequent movement adversely impacted the continuity of education for children of migrant workers. Many children get enrolled, but didn’t attend school due to seasonal migration. Either they remain out of school or attend pre-school centres run by civil society organisations at work sites.
This year, however, will keep many more children away from school pushing them into child labour. Due to the gap in schooling, loss of family’s income and loss of interest as they have no access to online or broadcast classes, many children might never return to schools.
The way forward
Various child rights organisation in India, including CRY, have been providing relief and rehabilitation services to vulnerable children and communities. They are reaching out to the government and frontline workers to provide essential services. But there are miles to go and the government, civil society organisations and the private sector must join hands in this journey.
The focus must be on education and survival. It is very important that children get enough food and nutrition. Food packets, milk and other weaning products must be a part of the package for younger children. Protein-rich nutrients and food diversity will boost their immunity and strength. We must also realise that uncooked food is of little help as migrants do not have access to kitchens.
Those still returning to their native villages should be provided with usable public toilets with proper sanitation, and for their dignity as well. Quarantine facilities, relief and transit camps at state borders, block or panchayat level must arrange safe and child-friendly shelters where nutritious food, water and sanitation facilities must be provided.
The overcrowded and under-performing Public Health Centres in villages need necessary financial and other support to be able to tackle health emergencies. They must also attend to and admit the returning migrants without discrimination.
In all of this, we must not forget our girls. They are vulnerable to being left behind and married off as a result of abject poverty. We also tend to forget about their menstrual health during emergent times.
It is time for local governments to step up to the task. Tracking all children of migrant families, registering them, extending ICDS services to even unregistered ones, maintaining continuity of immunisation, supplementary nutrition and other maternal and child care services are the imperatives of the hour. Appropriate measures need adequate investments, and that truly is the call of the day for the government at every level. For, in words and in action, we must all be in this crisis ‘together’, leaving behind no child and marginalised family.
(The writer is the CEO, CRY (Child Rights and You.)