Jahanavi Sharma, member of the 100 Million India Working Group, tells us why youth activists in India are focusing the Justice for Every Child campaign on education and child trafficking.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we knew it. The world which had stood still for months, as countries went into lockdowns, is gradually coming back to life. Movement with unprecedented caution is being allowed, office employees are again shifting from screens to their cubicles, and economic activity and daily bustle is slowly resuscitating.

Yet, the new normal is far from the normalcy that we had always known. While for a small chunk of world’s population, the discomfort brought by the inability to visit salons, go shopping, or the strain from online classes on their kids’ eyes proved challenging, a much darker ‘new normal’ was faced by the rest.

Any calamity or disaster impacts vulnerable children the worst, and COVID-19 has proven to be no different. Nearly 1.5 billion children around the globe - or 87%of the world’s school-aged population – had to stay home as schools in 165 countries shuttered. 

 

COVID-19: ALREADY A DISASTER FOR CHILDREN IN INDIA

The COVID-19 lockdown has been a nightmare for many in India. The rampant increase in unemployment during and following the shutdown and the subsequent cash crunch in households are leading to a dangerous environment for children. Children are rendered helpless against domestic violence and verbal, mental and sexual abuse at home, they’re increasingly falling prey to online exploitation, and they’re forced to endure poor health, hunger and starvation.

In India, children of migrant workers, towed behind their parents, covered hundreds of kilometres by foot when all transport services stopped. With meagre food supplies, these families on the road had to suffer the harshest ordeals. Children who left their homes in cities are very unlikely to join school again. Unavailability of schools in their home neighbourhoods, lost family savings and the trauma following the long march home are likely to be major deterrents to re-entering education for these children. They could be pushed into forced labour, sold to child traffickers, and there is already a rise in adolescent girls being forced to marry.

Children make up the most vulnerable section of the population. In India, as per the 2011 Census, 10.1 million (3.9% of total child population) are working, either as ‘main worker’ or as ‘marginal worker’. In addition, more than 42.7 million children in India were out of school, pre-COVID-19. These numbers are extremely likely to be on the rise.  

 

Andhra Pradesh IDG1With education going online, hundreds of millions of children are being locked out of learning: the 2017-18 National Sample Survey reported that only 23.8 per cent of Indian households had access to the internet. Worse still, the rural-urban divide in access to internet surfaces again: only 14.9 per cent of households in rural areas (66% of the Indian population) are online. Research by organisations like the GSMA and Girl Effect has shown that young girls have far less access to smartphones and the internet than boys, meaning that girls are more likely to be pulled further away from education. This creates a vicious cycle of illiteracy and lack of education limiting the career aspirations of young women, increasing the likelihood of violence against them, and being forced to endure strict domestication, all as a result of gender-based disparities. 

People are losing their jobs by the hour and are being pushed to the periphery or outside the socio-economic security umbrella. These people are already the easiest targets of the organised crime network. As deprivation, debt and hunger look them in the eye, they may be left with no option but to surrender their children to bondage and slavery.

 

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, defines a child as any human being below the age of 18 years with rights and dignity. A child is supposed to be provided with fair opportunities to attain education and make a life for herself. Education is the foundational stone on which one’s opportunities, one’s ambitions and one’s life stand on. It is the only way to truly empower someone to break the shackles of poverty, discrimination and social injustice. Educating someone is equipping them to judge the difference between right and wrong, it is emancipating them to make their own choices, speak their own minds and stand up for those with lesser means, those discriminated against and shunned from society and to amplify their voice too.

 

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Young people with privilege and education have a moral duty and responsibility to fight for all of us to have the same rights and to demand justice for every child: we all have the right to pave our own paths to the future and design the world of our dreams. Sometimes I feel young people like me often forget the sheer power of our collective will: there is nothing that we cannot change together, no injustice is large enough to overpower the intentions of a young population to make change happen. I am a young individual of a country which is proud to be one of the youngest in terms of demography. I feel absolute awe at how much potential my fellow young Indians have, how we can achieve anything if we set our hearts on it. Yet, after 72 years of freedom, we have a long way to educate and empower each citizen of this country. I passionately believe that education is only way to do this; education is the way we will build the country of our dreams.

With such a belief in our hearts and determination in our minds we have launched the Justice for Every Child campaign in India which is steered to hold local decision-makers accountable. 

We also wish to mobilise youth and youth-led organisations to extend their support to demand quality and accessible education to ensure that no child is left behind.

 

Lastly, I’d like to emphasise the great magnitude of optimism that has been surrounding the campaign since its initiation. The entire process of collaboration, of a united will to demand justice for children and the hard work that has been put in so far has been absolutely inspiring. There may be a lot of injustices that exist in the world right now, but it is crucial to focus on how much good that simultaneously exists too. As a Justice for Every Child Campaign young co-leader from India, I truly believe that through this campaign we will be able to make change happen, and win justice for each child, to which we all have the right.

Jahanavi Sharma is a youth activist, member of the 100 Million India Working Group, and studies Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. 

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