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Bend the curve on child abuse

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The world is arguably going through the worst form of crisis which has been unprecedented since World War-II. Around 2 million people in over 180 countries have been affected. India, already saddled with more than its fair share of problems, is doing whatever it takes to handle the pandemic.

The fear of the highly virulent disease has affected the psyche of the whole world and has confined the whole nation to their houses. The situation is particularly bad for the poor, marginalized and homeless which includes children in street situations.

Some argue that the home confinement has had some positive effects including improved air quality and a decrease in crime rate. It is a fact that there has been a certain decline in cases reported of crime against women and children. However, it is also a commonly acknowledged fact that increased stress and financial woes are resulting in violence against women and children. As per the recent news, there have been instances where nearly 30% of the callers on children’s helpline have sought protection from violence and abuse. Data from children’s helpline (Child Line-1098) in India shows that in the first-week post lockdown there has been a 50% rise in the call volumes. This means that vulnerability and crisis that children face, has exacerbated due to COVID-19.

With the loss of livelihood for many, the parents are trying to make the ends meet. In such a scenario closure of schools and confinement of children at home has led to a steep rise in domestic and gender-based violence. In poor households, slums and street situations, with confinement to cramped living spaces, there is increased stress and irritation among parents that is vented out in the form of corporal punishment and violent ‘disciplining’ of children.

With this also creeps in the increased risk of child abuse. We are aware that in many cases child sexual abuse takes place at home and the majority of perpetrators are known to children. Hence it is very likely that a child may be locked down with a perpetrator at home with no option to seek help since the child is bereft of the common routine of attending school or free movement where the child could solicit help.

In urban settings, children spending more time at home is directly proportional to spending more time online, thus increasing the risk of getting abused by online predators. Moreover, with the schools resorting to online modes of imparting education, parents allow children unhindered and unmonitored internet access. This exposes children to various apps, games and other mediums that may cause exploitation and abuse in the long run. As per reports, online child abuse has significantly risen in South East Asian countries after COVID-19 related confinement. 

Hence, with the COVID-19 pandemic related developments, crime/violence against children is being masked behind closed doors and the ‘safe’ confinement of homes. It has only taken an inside turn.

If India is to strengthen its child protection system, enormous efforts still need to be made in the area of creating awareness, sensitization, information provision, behaviour change, sex education, de-stigmatization and legal literacy among young adults.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 provides for stringent punishments for child abuse. The new POCSO Rules, notified by the Union Government in March 2020, not only define the processes for prevention and response to child abuse, but also provide for age-specific, gender-sensitive and child-friendly material to generate awareness on personal safety, and its wide dissemination. However, as with so many other legal provisions, there is not enough awareness among the masses about the provisions. The social stigma associated with reporting such cases is also a big deterrent.

Organizations like Save the Children have been tirelessly working towards generating awareness on child rights including on provisions of the POCSO Act and Rules. A handbook and e-modules on POCSO have been developed for children, caregivers and teachers.

The Leaders of the 21 global Organisations committed to ending violence against children, on 8th April 2020, came together in solidarity to share their concern, and called for action and pledge their support to protect children from the heightened risk of violence and to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on children in every country and community. 

These Leaders have also called upon the technology companies and telecoms providers to keep children safe online by providing access to cost-free child helplines, age-appropriate services and safe e-education platforms – and by using their platforms to share child online safety advice etc.

While the Government and the Civil Society continue to make efforts for the protection of each and every child in India from abuse, it is the duty of every citizen to do the same. The parents and children who are presently in their homes due to COVID-19 situation should use some of this time to gain knowledge about the rights of children and on the general provisions of POCSO Act that are available online at various sources. The child-care institutions should also use this opportunity to impart the knowledge on the subject to children.

While the lockdown and social distancing are being used to bend the curve of COVID-19 infections in India, we could use the lockdown to generate greater awareness on child rights among children and bend the curve of child abuse forever.

The Author, Shivani Bhaskar is Manager – Policy & Advocacy  (Child Protection) at Save the Children, India

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