How to protect the orphaned children left behind by India’s second wave

Children hang their face masks in the net and play a game of soccer in Kochi, Kerala state, India, on Oct. 6. (R S Iyer/AP)
Children hang their face masks in the net and play a game of soccer in Kochi, Kerala state, India, on Oct. 6. (R S Iyer/AP)

In the past two months, 7-year-old Tarun’s world collapsed around him. He lost both his parents to covid-19 during India’s devastating second wave. With the deaths of the family’s primary earners, Tarun’s grandfather Mohan is forced to work extra hours as a daily-wage construction laborer. Even after working overtime, he earns a mere 40 rupees (or $0.55) per day. The family anxiously worries that food will run out within the week — and they are not alone in this predicament.

India’s second wave has generated conversation about vaccinations and funeral pyres. Yet the staggering number of children who have lost both parents, and families who have lost their sole earners, also warrants immediate attention.

Overworked officials, understandably busy with pandemic management, are not releasing data about at-risk children, nor have they planned a timely response themselves. But local volunteers for the child protection nonprofit we work with, Aangan, tell us of the vast number of children in their neighborhoods who need urgent assistance because they have lost their caregivers. Through informal conversations with locals and neighbors, in just five days, volunteers in four districts identified more than 310 children from marginalized communities whose parents had died or were critically ill. With more than 300,000 registered covid-19 deaths in India, many under the age of 50, thousands of children across the country are expected to be in a similar situation.

The loss of a parent is traumatic, with long-lasting impacts. Children who have lost parents are at higher risk of depression and anxiety. Children orphaned by Ebola were also at heightened risk of malnutrition, physical abuse and teenage pregnancies.

For some, the process of grieving is cut short because the loss of a parent is also the loss of the only earning family member — the experience of 70 percent of the children we identified. India’s poor were already struggling due to the economic slump. We have seen families forced to push their daughters into child marriages. Child labor and trafficking, too, have increased during the pandemic.

Deepak from Varanasi, who lost his wife to covid-19, also lost both his jobs as a sari weaver and construction worker because of the lockdown. He hopes to get his 15-year-old daughter, Gayatri — a pseudonym, like all the names in this piece, to protect the privacy of those we spoke to — married soon, in an effort to secure a better future for her. Mohan, too, might now see little option but to put Tarun to work.

In one study of informal workers, 37 percent were unable to afford two meals a day. Many children do not have ration cards, Aadhar cards or other identity documents yet, blocking their ability to seek government assistance. Affected children across India should be given rations without cards and free school-level education until they are 18, as they are entitled according to policy in Delhi. They should not have to choose between investing in their future and surviving the present.

India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has emphasized reporting to district officials to prevent the illegal adoption and trafficking of orphaned children. This well-intended directive is unlikely to be effective unless authorities and those working in child protection proactively raise awareness in communities about a system that, for many, may be associated with negative experiences. Marginalized communities, particularly Dalits, have a history of violent interactions with formal institutions such as police, leading to a trust deficit. Seema, a local Aangan volunteer in Patna, says, “We don’t know who the officials are — we have never seen them. What if they take our children away from us at such a difficult time? We can’t trust anyone in this system.”

Often, family and kinship support networks are willing and well-positioned to take care of the child. We have seen uncles, aunts, grandparents, siblings and neighbors step up. Some say they are ready to take care of the children in the long term but require assistance. State services should aim to support these families and networks rather than force upon children the alternative of state-run homes and shelters. Moreover, as far as possible, Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) must ensure that children are not introduced to more instability by separating them from their known family and support networks.

Fifteen-year-old Fatima, who lost her single father to covid-19, is now responsible for the care of her sister, who has a mental disability. Fatima says she will have to discontinue her education because she wants to live at home until their elder sister can take over care for both of them. CWCs will need to ensure that children such as Fatima participate in decisions, and that new caregivers can access social protection programs. Officials need to activate local community networks and coordinate efforts in order to protect the child’s right to a family.

Tarun, Gayatri, Fatima and countless other as-yet-unidentified children have the right to an unabridged childhood. The pandemic has left scars that are difficult to heal, but the message to India’s children should be loud and clear: You will not be left behind.

Roshni Chakraborty is a student at Harvard University and a research associate at Aangan Trust, a nonprofit that works on child protection in India. Suparna Gupta is the founder of Aangan, an Ashoka Fellow and a 2013 Edward S. Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

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