COVID-19 has shocked the world into motion, for better and for worse. Here is a human health crisis that has not only swelled the number of sick among us, but once again exposed the underbelly of issues that lie dormant under “normal” conditions. If we have been watching a play with curtain closed, hearing the sounds of the show without seeing the actors, COVID-19 has pulled those curtains back just as the show began to reach a climax. But now the intermission has passed. We can no longer leave the theatre. Trapped, we have two options – hiding behind our masks is not one of them. We can engage with the rest of the performance, playing a part in its ending; or we can resist the show with sleep, pretending for a moment (or a lifetime; what’s the difference?) that we were not there.
To the right of the stage, jutting its belly outward toward the crowd, is India. For the past few years, India has implemented rigorous child labor laws to meet the challenge of child exploitation. The country currently holds the highest youth population of any country in the world. In the latest census from 2011, of the 260 million children living in India, 10 million worked in child labour, which the International Labour Organization (ILO) defines as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.”
COVID-19 makes families afraid for what may happen if children remain at home. This threatens India’s progress on child labour, as children are sent to work or young girls are given away in arranged marriages. With the government preoccupied by the pandemic, parents may take advantage of the opportunity to marry off their daughters without fear of government interference. A new report from Save the Children estimated that circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic will force 2.5 million more girls into arranged marriage. India’s child helpline, Childline, has reported a rise in calls from young girls who fear this fate.
Crisis creates opportunities to exploit those who fear for their safety and livelihoods. India has seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the world. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic is not an isolated crisis. Natural disasters have also threatened the country, such as the cyclone that hit parts of Eastern India in May, or the heavy flooding in Assam and Bihar which devastated crop yields and forced people to flee from their homes.
These threats are compounded by nation-wide school closures, which put vulnerable kids at greater risk of exploitation. Schools are vital spaces for these children. In addition to providing education, schools in India also ensure children’s safety by protecting them from traffickers and forced marriages. Additionally, schools provide children with crucial nourishment. For the last 25 years, India has sponsored one of the largest lunch programs in the world, which, in 2014, fed 120 million schoolchildren. The program has increased school enrollment, and, in an unexpected benefit, has helped promote acceptance in India’s youth by bringing children from different castes together to socialize over meals.
The loss from shuttered schools could not be greater than it is for India’s children. With this critical safety net missing, schoolchildren from poor regions are more likely to be tricked or forced into work. Alternatively, they may feel obligated to seek employment in order to make money for their family. Worse yet, once a child leaves school, it is much harder for them to return. According to developmental educationalist Niranjanaradhya V. P., 30% of schoolchildren will drop out of school completely, leaving them more susceptible to child labour or arranged marriage. Trouble at home, compounded by a restless adolescence, may also compel them to leave home, where they may be exploited into the workforce or lured into combat as youth soldiers.
CNN has reported one of these stories: a man in their village paid a 14-year old boy and his friends 500 rupees – the equivalent of 7 USD – to take a “vacation” from their homes in Bihar. Estimates put the number of child laborers in the state of Bihar – one of the poorest states in the country – at over 1 million. These boys planned to travel 1,287 kilometers to the city of Jaipur, but the bus was intercepted by police when it arrived. Nineteen children were rescued, and the police who discovered them suspect that they were being transported to bangle factories as cheap labour. Bangle manufacturing is prohibited for people under the age of 18 because of the difficulty involved in manipulating lacquer to create the coloured lac bangles sold in Jaipur.
Many more stories have been reported of buses intercepted en route to sweat shops, bangle factories, and more. Scarier yet are the ones which didn’t make it to the news – buses which arrived, unbothered, to their destinations, and children who were never found. With Anti-Human Trafficking Units operating at just over a quarter of their former capacity, these children are in peril.
To fall asleep, or to engage? Many Indians have chosen the latter. India’s national child protection panel has called on village councils to set up welfare programs for families who may be more at risk of trafficking due to financial distress. Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi has spearheaded the Bicycle Caravan project, which brings in volunteers – all of whom are child labour survivors – to guard India’s villages on bicycles, watching for signs of suspected trafficking. In one week alone, these bicycle warriors helped Indian authorities discover the whereabouts of 60 children and nine traffickers, who were then charged and arrested under India’s anti-human trafficking laws. Some Indian states are also responding to lifted lockdown measures – which created an increased demand for cheap labour – by tightening vigilance along their borders to guard against trafficking.
However, slight maneuvers by traffickers, like hiring luxury buses or changing routes, could mean that many children will pass by state lines unnoticed. “This is not simply the health crisis or economic crisis,” says Satyarthi. “This is the crisis of justice, of humanity, of childhood, of the future of an entire generation.”
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