That COVID19 has seen increased rates of gender based violence and child marriage is undeniable, but we must address the structural causes, says Nikita Khanna.
“Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Educate the girl child, Save the girl child)
In 2015 India sounded a clarion call, declaring the need to address its declining ratio of women to men. Five years later, the COVID19 pandemic threatens to reverse the little progress that has been made in protecting and improving the life of the girl child. Rising levels of child marriage, school dropouts and gender based violence are endangering the empowerment of women and girls.
As the world retreated into a lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus, we were exposed to a crumbling public health infrastructure, disintegrating mental health, disastrous treatment of migrant workers, and widespread economic impacts; the loss of livelihoods, and shut down of businesses. Whilst the economy took centrestage, a more sinister and dangerous pandemic was brewing: an alarming increase of gender-based violence and child marriages, a painful side-effect of a policy dubbed; ‘Stay home, Stay Safe’.
We must dig deeper into the root causes of the acutely disadvantageous position of women and girls.”
Within the first ten days of India enacting a strict lockdown in March the government helpline, Childline, received 92,000 distress calls asking for protection from abuse and violence. This number has increased relentlessly, reinforcing how staying at home was not safe for all. While it is easy to attribute these to the pandemic and the resultant lockdown, we must dig deeper into the root causes of the acutely disadvantageous position of women and girls. These difficult but honest reflections will pave the way for response and recovery.
Governments need to ensure that girls do not drop out of school during their closures and are able to return to their classrooms when it is safe. It is also important to create a balance between addressing the immediate risks of gender-based violence, including child marriage whilst being cognisant of the need to strengthen safeguarding and protective measures.
We need to develop stringent laws and action plans that are cross-sectoral, include increased community engagement and sensitisation as well as lay down clear paths for transparency and accountability. This is the only way we can ensure that the pandemic does not wipe out the progress that we have made on our promise five years ago.
Nikita works as a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Coordinator under The Development Alternative. Her primary work involves undertaking regular systematic monitoring and facilitation of learnings across different programmes. She has worked extensively on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of young people and non-discriminatory access to these services and is a strong advocate for youth participation in decisions that matter to them.