COVID-19’s impact on families in Telangana: 143 children orphaned, child marriages on the rise

Published : June 07, 2021 19:02 IST

A poster for Telangana's COVID-19 related help desk.

The Telangana government’s helpline (040-23733665) for COVID-19 related distress has not stopped ringing since it was opened on April 1. Without doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many families across the State, leaving them helpless and desolate, with numerous children being orphaned.

According to data from a preliminary survey conducted by the State’s Women Development and Child Welfare (WDCW) Department, 143 children have been orphaned as a result of the two waves of the coronavirus as of June 4. Of this, 30 children are from the State’s capital, Hyderabad. Speaking to Frontline, Divya Devarajan, Special Secretary to the Telangana government and Commissioner, WDCW Department, disclosed that the number was much higher if you considered children who have lost a single parent. These 143 orphaned children are under the monitoring and supervision of Child Welfare Committees (CWC) and District Child Protection Units.

Highlighting the kinds of calls that the helpline’s call centre has been receiving, Divya Devarajan said that it has varied from parents who had tested positive for COVID-19 expressing their inability to look after their children, to concerned neighbours calling to inform that a child has been abandoned or was alone at home, to pleas from vulnerable children seeking help after the family’s breadwinner had either succumbed or hospitalised, to queries on adoption.

Said the Commissioner: “Once the call centre receives a distress call, the information is passed on to the respective District Child Protection Units. These units have been equipped with a vehicle so that they can quickly reach the distressed family/person. Some money has also been parked with these District Child Protection Units so that in case of any immediate requirement, assistance can be immediately provided.” In case children whose parents have tested positive for COVID-19 needed to be temporarily housed elsewhere, they are, after due diligence exercised by the concerned District Welfare Officer, shifted to transit homes.

Devarajan also disclosed that the WDCW Department had partnered with several NGOs, including Save the Children, to distribute kits containing provisions, stationery items, diapers in the case of young children and sanitary napkins, and so on. “These kits are handed over to the family or children wherever necessary,” said Devarajan.

The pandemic is having a strange collateral damage among young girls. The number of pleas for help from young girls who are being pressurised into getting married has increased. Said Devarajan: “Without doubt, the impact of COVID-19 has posed a huge challenge, not just to the government, but to society at large. With the government school/hostels remaining closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students, including young girls, have all gone back to their villages. And in the rural scenario, with no scheduled studies or activities, the problem is getting accentuated. And one huge area of concern is under-aged girls being forced into marriage.”

Between February 2019 and March 2020, the WDCW Department averted 977 child marriages in the State. Since the pandemic broke, the number has gone up to 1,355.

Said Devarajan: “Child marriage is itself a very complicated social issue that many a time has its roots in economic distress. On May 25, we received a call from a 17-year-old girl living in the Basheerabad police station limits who reached out complaining that she was being forced into a marriage. She said she was underage, and that she wanted to go live with her grandmother. Members of the CWC, the local police and an Anganwadi worker immediately visited the girl’s house and initiated action. She was shifted to her grandmother’s house.”

Devarajan acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic could erase some of the benefits that have accrued from schemes like the one that led to establishment of 194 Telangana Model Schools in the State’s educationally backward mandals that provide free education in English from classes VI to XII. Said Devarajan: “These Model Schools are based on the Kendriya Vidyalaya template and have positively impacted the girl child, educating her and making her more aware. The government’s Kalyana Lakshmi Scheme and the equivalent Shaadi Mubarak scheme for brides from the Muslim community where Rs.100,000 is given to the parents of a girl child if they get her married after she crosses the age of 18 have also yielded positive incentives.”

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