As the second wave of the debilitating COVID-19 virus has seen a high fatality rate, the situation in the tea garden areas of Assam, India, is no different. There has been a considerable rise in deaths as well as positive cases. The official data released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, states that 577* children (between 1 April 2021 to 25 May 2021) across the nation have lost their parents in this pandemic; needless to say, the real scenario indicates a more distressing situation. We have seen the desperate pleas to adopt orphaned children being circulated on social media, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and abuse. Many children are left uncared for and have to struggle for livelihood.
Save the Children has recently come across a similar case in one of the tea estates of Assam, India. Kartik* (name changed to conceal identity), a resident of Jorhat, Assam, had passed away on 17th February due to cancer. Thereafter, his family was forced to fight for survival in the absence of the principal bread earner. The family had yet to recover from the shock and grief of Kartik’s* demise when Junita (47), wife of late Kartik*, succumbed to COVID infection leaving behind three children. The children Pushpa (18 years old and studies in a college), Sona (14 years old and a student of class IX), and Kamal (10 years old and a student of Class V)* were left clueless about how to go about their life after losing both their parents. Except for Pushpa, the two other children are still minor and have no other caregiver but the grandmother, Namita Devi* (65 years). The distant relatives, who were informed about the situation of the children and that they require care and support, did not turn back to the family. Despite the repeated request from Namita Devi, none of the relatives came over to their house. After the final rituals of their mother, the children are trying to cope up with their loss. They had to console each other. Things turned worst when Sona tested positive and was in home isolation then.
The family is struggling with financial challenges now. Kartik’s financial deposits were mostly spent on his cancer treatment. Being a small tea garden worker, he hardly had any option for social and financial security. The family is on the verge of financial penury. The sudden incidents have throttled Pushpa’s dream of becoming a doctor. Being the eldest among three siblings, Pushpa thinks of teaching some children to support her family and continue her education.
The state faces an increase in child rights violations cases during the pandemic. Child marriage cases also increased as of the official data of National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-2000), which indicates a rise (24.6%) due to school closure, limited livelihood opportunity, loss of parents’ livelihood, etc. Further, the Assam Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) have observed that there has been a rise in child trafficking cases in the state by 50% in 2019. Amid the two consecutive COVID waves and subsequent lockdowns, the economy has been throttled, and many have lost their livelihood. Save the Children anticipates a further rise in such crime against children, especially when they lose their immediate caregivers or parents to this pandemic.
To ensure adequate protection for the three children, Save the Children has reached out to District Child Protection Unit and Child Welfare Committee to extend adequate care and protection to the family. It will be ensured that they have food and necessary psycho-social support, as per government notification issued on 30th April 2021, in the wake of innumerable SOS calls to adopt children orphaned due to COVID. Considering the protection risk of these children, Save the Children and the District Child Protection Unit have reached out to the local stakeholders to ensure the protection of these children through a community-based watchdog mechanism – this would help ensure protection for every child, including children like Pushpa and her siblings.
Pushpa* says, “We are devastated. My sister Sona was infected as our mother passed away. She was in home isolation. We were clueless about what to do. We couldn’t even see our mother for one last time. Now our future is almost bleak. I do not know if I can continue my education as my younger siblings are still minor, and we do not have any source of income at this moment“.
Manas Pratim Dihingia, the Field Coordinator of Save the Children in Jorhat, says, “The children are still in trauma. They are presently being cared for by their grandparents. The District Child Welfare Committee is closely monitoring the situation“.
Namita Devi* (65 years old), the grandmother of three children who is also a housewife, says, “People in our village are fearing after knowing the death of our son and daughter-in-law. We are left with no source of income to feed the children. I am also worried about the security of my grandchildren“.
“I cannot see the agony of my grandson, who is youngest among the three. Every night he crawls into my arms and cries! I understand that he misses his parents, especially his mother. I also noticed that Sona (younger granddaughter) has become abnormally quiet while recovering from post-COVID weaknesses. Our entire family has shattered. The local District Child Protection Unit had reached out to us after knowing the situation, they have promised to support us by linking us to the social schemes to run our family, but that would take time, till then, how will we survive?”
Save the Children is working in close coordination with State Commission for Protection of Child Rights and District Administration, Integrated Child Protection Schemes to ensure children’s protection, especially those in distress during this pandemic. Soon after receiving the information about this family, we reached out to the District Child Protection Unit in Jorhat and the Child Welfare Committee Members to ensure necessary support reached the family. Additionally, we are extending psycho-social support to the children to cope up with this distressing situation.
We empower the children and communities in tea plantations of Assam, India project by addressing abuse and exploitation of children through enhanced awareness among boys and girls and strengthened community engagement. We are engaging and sensitizing the tea-producing companies / Big Tea Plantations, Farmer Producer Organizations, and Union and Association related to tea plantations regarding Child Rights and Business Principles to protect children’s rights. We are working towards strengthening the child protection mechanisms (workforce/structure) at the district level with improved capacity to address, refer, and respond to child labour, violence, and abuse of children.
Save the Children is urging people not to share details about orphaned children online and instead to contact 1098- helpline to protect children from falling prey to child traffickers.
*Data from 1 April 2021 – 25 May 2021
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