“My family has no money. There is only one earning member in my family,” states Garima, age 15, from Sitamarhi District in India. “I was compelled to leave studies because of the financial status of my family. But if I get an opportunity, I will surely study.”
As of May 31, 2020, India had more than 217,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. For many weeks, much of the country has been under lockdown and movements have been restricted. This has had a drastic impact on the livelihoods of many through the loss of jobs, food insecurity, school closures and other aspects.
When the border between India and Nepal is open, it is known as one of the busiest human trafficking gateways in the world. During times of insecurity or unrest, girls and boys are even more vulnerable to trafficking, as their schooling is interrupted and economic upheaval makes it harder for families to provide for their children. As families are forced to stretch their limited resources, girls are at risk of early marriage in an attempt to transfer responsibility of providing for them to the groom’s family. As restrictions are eased, girls and boys are at risk of never going back to school, having to work to help sustain their families. False marriage proposals and deceptive labor recruitment practices are among the principal ways that children are lured by traffickers, and COVID-19 has made families even more susceptible.
Plan International USA was in the start-up phase of PROTECT, an anti-trafficking project, as COVID-19 spread around the world. The project seeks to prevent trafficking by raising awareness of trafficking risks, teaching life skills, changing norms and attitudes and strengthening community-based child protection mechanisms. The project will also work with trafficking victims — those who have been rescued — and help rehabilitate and reintegrate them with their home communities.
With movement and access restricted, we wanted to understand what was happening in the communities we support and how activities could be adjusted to address current needs. Through 230 interviews that took place from April 21 to May 15, 2020, staff members connected with girls via phone calls. The interviews focused on how they were being affected, how they were coping and what they were worried about. In many cases, it took two or three attempts to connect with girls as families only have one phone, which usually stays with a male family member. Many families used the opportunity to talk about their challenges in general.
“I think I and my parents will get infected with this virus,” reported Pinky, a 13-year-old girl. “It is very dangerous and I always feel scared.” While in lockdown, Pinky uses her free time to help with household chores and cooking. Her family lacks the resources to get enough food for the whole family or afford medicine for an elderly relative. Once it is safe, Pinky wants to return to school and resume her education.
The interviews found that the pandemic has increased stress and anxiety levels in the adolescent girls due to a lack of food and growing financial insecurities in their families. Of the total 230 adolescent girls interviewed, 38.7% report that they will not be able to continue their education and other vocational courses, whereas 37.8% expressed that they are facing stress at home and are feeling isolated. In addition, 83% were facing financial insecurities in their family, and 77.4% were lacking food and other resources at home.
In response, the PROTECT project is providing food and hygiene kits to more than 3,650 families. We are also adjusting awareness campaigns to integrate messaging about the dangers of child marriage and working to strengthen child protection in project locations. Over the next several months, the project will continue to support girls and their families so that their basic needs are met and the likelihood of child trafficking can be reduced.
“I am not scared of anything in this world,” said Garima as her interview drew to a close. “I am not scared of coronavirus, or anything else.” Garima is hoping that as India slowly reopens, her father can find consistent work and she will be able to return to school.
Names changed to protect identities.
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