The pandemic has orphaned many children. Will support from government agencies, NGOs, legal agencies, bring hope to their lives?
By Alka Singh
My mother is no more, and my father is sick, now I have to manage everything,” Rajat, a teenager, speaks in a poignant tone. No less miserable is a parent, Jitendra, who lost his wife to COVID. “My wife gave birth after 10 years of marriage. Eighteen days after delivering, she succumbed to corona. Now, the child’s entire responsibility is on me. I don’t know how I will manage.”
Several steps are being taken to ensure the security and rights of children rendered orphans due to one or both parents succumbing to the COVID-19 pandemic. One such area of government activism and intervention is the launch of the PM CARES fund. Additionally, the corporate sector, NGOs, activist organisations, citizens, and extended families are coming forth to help such unfortunate children.
Though a lot is being declared and signed on paper, it remains to be seen whether “anything that has intent, resources and commitment to implementation will work,” says Nicole Rangel, co-founder of Leher. In India child protection systems and services are stretched tight, much beyond their capacity and facility to deliver.
Under the Juvenile Justice Act, police units’ services, family support, sponsorship, foster care, and residential care, all are geared to nurture and protect children who have lost their parents in whichever way. Rangel elaborates, “Children who have lost their parents are defined under this law and there are provisions therein to ensure their care and rehabilitation. But interventions for these children should be broached through a systematic approach based on each service’s capacity to reach out to maximum numbers. Simplified processes should be in place to guarantee help speedily and easily, ruling out victims ‘running from pillar to post’.”
The ground reality is hard and challenging. Rangel adds, “Losing parents is tragic in the life of any child. It is not in the order of life. It leaves emotional scars that travel with children into adulthood. I am not in a position to comment and pursue whether ad hoc grants, payments and compensations effectively reach these children as promised.”
The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) has launched a survey to identify and earmark basic to total needs of children starting from access to food (dry rations), health and education. NGOs are pitching in by assisting in filling forms by which caretakers and relatives can avail of the benefits of government schemes so that they reach the affected parties and groups.
But Bharti Ali, from an NGO, HAQ for Children, concurs with Rangel, “Any funds generated to look after children affected by COVID, not just orphans, are useful as long as these get translated into reality and reach the children.”
Ali is of the view that if funds from PM Cares are transferred to the Juvenile Justice funds, created in the states, it can go a long way in supporting the child protection needs, such as shelter, sponsorship for education, vocational training, and medical urgencies.
For some reason, the financial management systems and practices in states’ and Union Territories” administrations do not contribute to the Juvenile Justice fund. The PM CARES fund can certainly come in use to fill these gaping financial lacunae. She welcomes the PM CARES fund paying premium for children’s health insurance. Although, for the funds to reach the orphaned children, their guardians or caretakers need to be issued guardianship certificates. She appeals to the government to smoothen and simplify the process of funds delivery to the children and /or caretakers and also ensure they are not misused by vested interests.
According to Ali, the funds must be used to retain children in schools they are already attending. Anything otherwise would be a misnomer and improper because shifting them to Navodaya Vidyalayas would be hurting their emotional growth and bonding with their school friends and teachers that takes several years to build. Considering the tragedy, shifting school takes a huge toll on children’s emotional and material well-being.
In joint families, aunts, uncles, and grandparents substitute for parents, acting as buffers to support, love and nurture in their absence. However, it is not so in the nuclear family which is the norm today.
Further, in under-resourced families, parentless children encounter various risks such as dropping out of school, being forced to work, exploitation and misappropriation over ownership of properties within and outside families, substance abuse and trafficking. They are often exposed to loss of livelihood, inaccessibility to online education over a year, migration back to villages, chronic illnesses, mental health, and domestic violence. These unfortunate children are victims of lacunae in systems and services.
The problems posed by the pandemic need a bottom-up approach, linked to local awareness of child protection systems and service providers. Rangel suggests, “Communities need to work closely with their local government representatives to ensure that children remain safe, protected and do not spill out of the system.”
It is the normal order in society for families to organically come forward to take care of children who lose their parents. To ensure this it is critical to build community mechanisms that are prepared to address the needs and vulnerabilities of childhood. It is in the best interests of these children to be raised within their communities and extended families. It is possible if relatives receive material and emotional support to do the same.
Ali reveals that there are NRIs who want to adopt but they do not find it an easy process. “In one case the NRI relatives of two orphaned children had come over to India to take the children with them as there was no one else to look after them. They were happy to adopt them, but could not. Hindus can adopt children of relatives under the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, but this will apply only when biological parents are alive and willing to give away their child in adoption to a relative. If the children are orphans, then they can only be adopted under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. Adoption is a time-consuming process with adequate checks and balances introduced to ensure that children are not subjected to illegal adoption or the adoption will not put them in any exploitative or vulnerable situation.”
She adds, “For situations like COVID, resulting in loss of parents, the Central Government should have allowed some kind of temporary custody to relatives, NRI or Indian nationals, till such time the adoption gets finalised. We have received some donations from NRIs to support children who have lost one or both parents to COVID. Many times they want to know who the child is for whom their donation will be used. This should not be allowed as dignity of children should not be compromised in the effort to support them. If they want to know whether their money is being used for the right purpose, they can seek documentary evidence like school fee receipts, but not at the cost of making children feel dependent on others for their life or indebted to others for the rest of their life.”
According to Kavita, from HAQ, “Families are, generally, not willing to give their children for adoption. Where the sole breadwinner is dead, the caretaker is preparing to find employment, seeking help to do so. Fathers whose children are left motherless are asking for support from paternal and maternal grandparents. Very few express the need for adoption. What they want is support to help in raising their children healthily.”
Says Rangel, “I don’t know about financial help but we have had queries from people to whom we have clarified that there are no shortcuts in adoption. They have to follow the due process and we directed them to the government of India’s portal for the same.”
Alternatives to adoption are co-sponsorships, kinship care and foster care, adds Kavita. Government and NGO-run support programmes should be made accessible to children directly or through their guardians. Troubled lives depleted by loss can be refuelled by placing children on forums with peers to develop friendships based upon common experience, sharing and cheering up each one’s pain, and replacing it with hope and energy. According to Ali, the affected child’s coping mechanism needs to be manoeuvred around, calling out for their needs to be fulfilled such as security, health, education, and emotional development. The government, NGOs and media have a constructive role to play in maintaining children’s dignity while embarking upon schemes and services, meant for their benefit. They should not condemn them to mental and emotional turmoil which they are already encountering.
The author is a senior journalist.