Silencing Our Children: Ascending of Abuse During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jitamanyu Sahoo and Syed Mujtaba Hussain 

THE Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has posed catastrophic challenges to societies all over the globe. While vaccination and other efforts are being undertaken to contain the virus, these same efforts have exposed children to an increased risk of family violence. The social isolation measures undertaken by the countries have impacted the jobs, giving rise to economic instability and emergence of new forms of relationships are some of the causal factors for increased violence amongst children. Moreover, the restrictions on movement with closure of schools and isolation from peer groups have disrupted the children’s social interaction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a cascading effect in which the lives of children have been deranged at different levels. The unpreparedness of our societies exposed to the significant threats to individuals, families and communities have all contributed to the rise of ongoing child abuse during the pandemic. A study recently published in the Journal of Psychiatry Research examining the emerging evidence on child abuse have highlighted the COVID-19 impact on children depend on vulnerability factors such as developmental age, previous mental health conditions, educational and socioeconomic status, or being quarantined.

The consequences of child abuse during the ongoing pandemic are irremediable due to the invisibilization of the violence. UNICEF, worryingly states “Lockdowns, school closures and movement restrictions have left far too many children stuck with their abusers, without the safe space that school would normally offer. It is urgent to scale up efforts to protect children during these times and beyond.” We are witnessing an intergenerational transmission of violence in India; and the nature and nurture of children should not be considered as different factors in the violence perpetrated against children in times of crisis. While most of the legislations and policies addressing the aspects of child abuse do not taken into account the behavioral and the ecological features of the violence perpetrated.

Child Abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) states child abuse as a coercive act with a child who is unable to comprehend or provide consent, leading to serious physical or psychological damage. Child Abuse includes punishment in the form of hitting, punching, kicking or beating which also occurs in schools and other institutions. It also includes sexual activities like inappropriate touching of private parts or indulging the child in touching the private parts of the perpetrator, molestation, sodomy, exhibitionism, pornography, and cybersexual acts.

A series of meta‐analyses conducted on the prevalence of child sexual, physical and emotional abuse and physical and emotional neglect, including 244 publications and 551 prevalence rates for the various types of maltreatment in 2014 and published in Child Abuse Review. The report surveyed and noted in its findings estimating 22.6% for physical abuse, 36.3% for emotional abuse, 7.6% among boys and 18% among girls for sexual abuse, 16.3% for physical neglect, and 18.4% for emotional neglect.

Similarity, studies on COVID-19 pandemic has shown there has been a surge of child abuse cases during the lockdown. A study conducted and published in Disease of Childhood ‘Rise in the incidence of abusive head trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic’ stated an alarming rise in abuse-related head injuries among children in the United Kingdom and also filling the vacuum in the evidence on how the efforts taken to counter the pandemic has had malignant effect on the children.

In India, over one lakh calls were received across 570 districts of the country to seek protection from violence and abuse. This period only accounts of the lockdown and the data from the entire period of 2020 till now is yet to be disseminated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. The calls received were related to protection from physical and sexual abuse of the children, pertaining to cases of child labour, missing children, education, providing shelter, counselling and even child marriages. But whether the district child protection units, children welfare committees and the child care institutions were able to coordinate and address the challenges is yet to be evident.

Since, child abuse forms a major portion on the global burden of disease and also in India, the pandemic has significantly extended the vulnerability of children. The abuse and neglect undergone by the children will lead to alcohol and drug abuse, cognitive impairment and developmental delays, eating and sleep disorders, poor school performance, poor relationships reproductive health problems post-traumatic stress disorder depression and anxiety suicidal behaviour and self-harm, delinquent, violent and other risk-taking behaviours. The complex relations between the consequences of child abuse and the delayed response of our health services have already led to a serious child rights crisis.

Child Abuse is a Public Health Issue

We deprive millions of children to become productive citizens as we say we are devoted to them. This deprivation and prejudice exists amongst children due to abuse and neglect they suffer in their childhood or throughout their childhood. The theoretical and empirical studies conducted to ascertain the incidence and measures undertaken for child abuse as a public health issue especially in India are not adequately synthesized and interpretated.

Recognition of child abuse is really difficult and not considered as a public health crisis which need to dealt in an urgent basis. Firstly, majority of children have variety of infections and parents’ inadequacy in providing the relevant detail; secondly, child sexual abuse for instance in India is covered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, but child abuse can be of varied forms inclusive of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect, often which the law overlooks and not addressed due to institutional incapacities; and thirdly, non-reporting of the child abuse for the fear of re-victimization because of medical examination, criminal justice system and exclusion from society members there is a continuation of child abuse.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised complex issues in India involving recognizing and balancing the rights of parents and children, and responding to the diverse needs of new, competent, and dysfunctional families. The emerging evidence though discloses and identifies child abuse but quarantine and social isolation measures have also suppressed evidence. This is because with limited engagement with the society, withdrawal from preschool, school, community, youth programmes, lack of association with peer groups, the early warning signs for abuse are distorted.

The access to health care and social services in India have suffered simultaneously for three reasons: a) child protection and welfare services are hampered by the mobility restrictions necessitated by the lockdown, thus limiting the accessibility; b) children in lockdown may be with the alleged perpetrators of abuse, especially if these are family members, with no respite, they are not only at greater risk of more frequent sexual or physical abuse but also hindered from accessing helplines and reporting the abuse and c) accessibility with ease of electronic devices, have been unsafe for children leading to ‘artificial fall’ and online bullying.

Our Response

In normal times, child rights activists, child care institutions would have been advocating for deinstitutionalization of children and (re)uniting them with their families. This response to child abuse has had beneficial effects on children. Such response of community awareness and participation with anganwadi workers, ASHA workers, police, community workers, students have been an effective mechanism for sensitizing to identify and assess child abuse and to further prevent it.

But given the nature and scale of crisis due to the pandemic our response could be made at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels in lines with the recently article published in Indian Journal of Psychiatry, ‘Children on the brink: Risks for child protection, sexual abuse, and related mental health problems in the COVID-19 pandemic’. At the primary level capacity of childcare institutions shall be enhanced and update training and capacity building of government Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) staff and counsellors in accordance with emerging evidence. At the secondary levels, systematic home studies and evaluation of family capacities to care for children may be carried out by the child care institutions. Finally, at the tertiary level there should be scalability training modules and use of technology and evidence to identify child abuse patterns.

Since, the impact of COVID-19 pandemic has been global it must compel us to adopt innovation in making systemic changes within our process and procedures for child protection.

Views expressed in the articles are the author’s own responsibility. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and is strictly for educational/informative purposes only

  • Jitamanyu Sahoo & Syed Mujtaba Hussain are Research Scholars working in (Comparative Health Law, Human Security & Constitutional Law)

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