'Cannot Leave Our Children Behind': Kailash Satyarthi on Covid-19 Impact on Child Health, Education

Rakhi Bose
·5-min read

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on children's education, physical and mental health across the world. In India, the pandemic has also led to a considerable spike in child labour and abuse. During the last year, the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation has been working closely with government organisations and NGOs to contain rising cases of child labour.

News18 got in touch with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and child labour and education expert Kailash Satyarthi to understand the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the health and education of children across marginalised sectors in India.

Do you think the coronavirus pandemic has created a more dangerous environment for children in India and around the world? If so, how? And who is to be held accountable?

The pandemic has, unfortunately, already led to an aggravation of the dangers faced by the most marginalised children in India, especially in terms of child labour and trafficking. With countrywide school closures, loss of family income, and mass displacement. this was bound to happen. Children who were already vulnerable to child labour and trafficking were now at a heightened risk due to schools closures and loss of family income. All of these children are at great risk of being trafficked and forced to work. Girls are at an even greater risk of being forcefully married, never to return to school. But we can still salvage the crisis by seeing and acknowledging that which is right in front of us, and taking immediate and tangible action. This action must come collectively, including from governments, businesses, educational institutions, health services, young people and civil society. We cannot move forward from this crisis without taking our children with us.

You have been recently launched the Fair Share for Children campaign in which you have insisted that 20 per cent of COVID-19 recovery funding be specifically allocated to 20 per cent of the most marginalised children of the world. With that respect, do you think the Indian government is spending enough on children's healthcare and protection?

Child labour is the manifestation of decades of unequal access to rights, resources and representation by marginalised children and their families. The resultant vulnerability of these communities was exacerbated by the pandemic, with only barely 0.13 per cent of the global COVID-19 relief being allocated to those most in need.

The demand for a Fair Share for Children is that of a fair share in resources, policies and social protection for the most marginalised children and their families. This will usher in a political ethic that is grounded in justice. The needs of our children - be it education, healthcare, or protection cannot be addressed in isolation from one another. For the child, it is the systemic lack of access that makes him/her vulnerable. So when we speak of spending, we have to look at how the entire safety net around the child can be strengthened.

Do you think that online education is a feasible alternative for children across India?

Globally, the number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million that could reverse decades of progress. We cannot afford to ignore this. Not only will we risk losing an entire generation of children, but we would be perpetuating several decades of poverty, unemployment and stunted economic growth.

Online education is not an alternative to education; it is an additional tool to improve access and quality of education. Our means and methods of education have to constantly evolve with the needs of the time we live in, but what online education provides is only flexibility, not an alternative. Most importantly, the reliance on online education is dangerous till the time there is equal access to digital tools by all children. It will only deepen education disparity, reinforce discrimination and create an even more unequal world.

What can you tell us about the pandemic's impact on the mental health of children from the marginalised sector? Do you think it's an area that needs government attention/intervention?

I don’t think we have fully comprehended the impact on the mental health on our children. This is something we are going to have to examine and understand as we go along. How can one imagine the pain and trauma felt by a toddler whose mother died of starvation in front of his eyes in the railway station, as he waited for milk? How can one comprehend the isolation and pain felt by the child labourers who are trapped in a factory for months during lockdown after his employer deserted them? These are not traumas that can be taken lightly. We need deep compassion to truly start understanding the suffering of our children, to even begin their journey to healing.

How has the pandemic created a higher risk of children being pushed into labour and trafficking in India?

As of now, over 2000 children have been rescued by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan alone. And there are thousands more across the country. The pandemic affected both, children that were already trapped in child labour due to lockdowns, and those who were made more vulnerable due to the impact of the pandemic. In the first instance, my organisation received several anonymous tip-offs about children who were abandoned by their employers in factories, without food, money and any way to escape. Many such children were rescued with the help of law enforcement.

Even in the midst of lockdown, the trafficking of children continued undeterred. In September last year, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) team from Bihar informed the police in Rajasthan and Gujarat, that they had received intel that a group of children were being trafficked from Bihar. In a joint operation by the BBA teams in Rajasthan and Gujarat and the law enforcement from these states, 41 children were rescued at Kota and Ahmedabad stations. 8 traffickers were arrested and their FIRs were registered. Between August and October 2020 alone, 91 traffickers have been arrested upon the complaint of BBA.