The rapid spike of the coronavirus has resulted in lockdown. Prolonged school closures, home confinement and cessation of daily activities because of the COVID-19 pandemic have had an impact on children’s mental well-being. Such issues often remain unrecognized and unaddressed.
While children from well-to-do families enjoy a better childhood even during the pandemic, underprivileged children, particularly the poverty-stricken ones in rural pockets, have less scope and opportunities to adapt and grow.
Obstacles to their optimal development seem to be humongous to overcome when their disadvantaged parents face a double whammy of income loss and health hazards. It is the same in and around Jagdalpur, Bastar district’s headquarters.
Tribal villages dominate the Jagdalpur administrative block. Bhadra, Halvi, and Muriya tribes make up 80% of the population. 50% of them are small and marginal farmers and the rest take up labor work. Women are also engaged in farming activities, while a sizeable number works in brick kilns.
It has been a tough situation for the children, to be left at home, sometimes with elderly family members. With schools being closed, there is restricted interaction with friends. Parents are able to perceive a sense of aloofness and anxiety in their young children.
In the initial days of the outbreak, fear of death loomed large in the minds of children as they believed death was inescapable if one contracted the virus. “One day my 11-year-old daughter was visibly upset and said if one person got infected, the entire village would die in few days,” said Manmati, a volunteer.
With support from ChildFund India, Bastar Sewak Mondal (BSM), a child focused development organization working in Bastar, one of the least developed districts in Chhattisgarh, decided to reach out to children and parents in rural areas. The initiative has had a positive impact on the children and parents.
BSM reached out to 1,000 children and their parents across 20 villages in nine panchayats of Jagdalpur block during this lockdown. To equip underprivileged parents, BSM roped in 14 volunteers – mostly youth from collectives formed by BSM. ChildFund India conducted a five-day training program on socio-emotional learning and a day’s training on the project for the volunteers.
The volunteers meet parents and children separately and spend two hours with them, twice a week. They conduct several child-friendly activities, besides discussing social issues arising out of the lockdown – shrinking income, challenges of education, cohabitation with siblings the whole day, access to proper nutrition and foods.
Volunteers prepare weekly session plan for children as well as their parents. A vernacular booklet Mein aur meri Duniya (My world and I) helps the volunteers conduct sessions. Volunteers encourage parents also to make use of the book, as parents with basic literacy can read the book and help their children with the activities.
Volunteers, during their visit, and later the parents, engage the children in productive and mentally stimulating activities such as creative writing, bamboo craft, local art, painting, local dance and terracotta, besides teaching the importance of preventive measures such as hand-washing, wearing mask, etc.
Children below 10 pick up bits and pieces of information from adult conversation and are not fully aware of the virus and the scale of damage causes. Misinformation leads to fear. Children are encouraged to talk, to overcome the fear.
Grandparents are encouraged to engage with the children, given the children’s emotional bonding with their grandparents. Volunteers encourage them to share their memory about past epidemics like cholera and small pox, besides natural disasters, and how they overcame the diseases, to reassure the children that this too shall pass.
“I was frightened that we all would die of coronavirus soon, but my grandmother shared how they got over haija (cholera) another epidemic and what she said gave me confidence that we shall overcome coronavirus problem soon,” said Urmila, a 10-year-old girl of Sadgud village.
Narendra, an eight-year-old boy, who had similar fear received a dose of positivity from his grandfather. “This corona virus is just like smallpox, sooner or later, it will go away but we need to practice safe hygiene and social distancing,” he said with confidence.
When things around them happen differently during a tough situation like this pandemic, the usual deportment of children is adversely impacted and it is very likely they exhibit altered emotions. This may annoy the parents, but this delicate issue must be handled efficiently.
Since parents belong to the lower rung of the economic ladder, they have their other prioritized problems such as wage loss, food deficit, uncertain future, etc. However, the volunteers convince parents to attach considerable importance to their children and their development.
“Despite being a little literate, only I now know how to meaningfully engage with my children during this lockdown,” said Balaram, father of one of the children supported through this program. Children’s joy knows no bounds when they learn through such a creative and playful process with the active engagement of their parents and grandparents.
The volunteers engage with the children at household level so as to avoid crowding. They limit the number of children to a maximum of six. The volunteers help children follow an academic routine too.
Children who are a part of this ongoing program are found to be more sportive. They take pride in their creative activities that help them keep stress at bay. “I think I utilized the lockdown more productively,” said Suchita, an eight-year-old girl.
On the other side, this effort has skilled parents to create a space and opportunity for children at home to engage, express, empower and educate children to adapt to the new normalcy and letting life move on. Sister. Lisset, the project manager at BSM who has been spearheading this initiative, said the block level education office was impressed by the design and implementation of this program.
They want to follow the model in other villages. BSM is helping them with all developed resources and training materials to scale this up in other villages for a greater reach and impact.
Sk Mosharaf Hossain is an impact assessment specialist and works at International Rice Research Institute, Odisha. Samit Pal is a child education specialist with ChildFund India. Views are personal.