When will the school open? Will it even open again?”, “Will I get promoted?”, “Will I be able to go to college?”, “Can I get the vaccine even if I am not 18 years old?” These are some of the questions Samadrita Chowdhury has been fielding.
Chowdhury is one of 20 social workers who are part of the ConnectKaro initiative started by the Mumbai-based NGO Aangan Trust, which focuses on child safety. It offers six toll-free “warmlines” across 900 bastis (slums) and villages in Mumbai (Maharashtra), Patna (Bihar), Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Bharatpur (Rajasthan), Pakur (Jharkhand) and North 24 Parganas (West Bengal). The aim is to give underprivileged teenagers an outlet to talk and share their concerns, anxieties, even grief.
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The team goes through in-house training on ways to pick up specific language cues, create a safe space with their tone, provide bereavement and grief support to children, and suggest coping strategies. In cases where there is abuse, they may report it—the safety of the child remains paramount.
These are not counselling sessions, emphasises the trust’s chief operating officer, Chaitali Sheth. “The toll lines are a safe space for the children to talk and get some reassurance.”
Although the questions seem direct and articulate immediate concerns, they reflect the underlying anxiety and fear, says Chowdhury, who works with the community in Pakur, a nine-hour drive from Ranchi. The underlying concerns she alludes to are the surge in anxiety and fear children, especially girls, face since the covid-19 outbreak—of being forced into marriage early or pushed into child labour.
“Before the pandemic, these children had better coping mechanisms; they could negotiate with their parents to study further,” says Chowdhury. But with schools more or less shut since the covid-19 outbreak, they are hearing parents broach the subject of marriage more often. The callers also talk about not getting the time to study since they are pulled into house and field work, taking care of siblings, livestock and other jobs.
The toll-free service is open from 9am-7pm. The team has, however, noticed that calls peak between 2-5pm. “Privacy is an issue. We believe that perhaps family members might be sleeping or there is a lull in activities at home, which gives them some space to talk privately,” says Sheth. So far, the team has received over 580 calls, most callers—mainly girls—being in the 12-16 age group.
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Last year too, the trust had offered the service in May-June, though it wasn’t toll-free. The feedback was that many children couldn’t even make a call as their mobile phones didn’t have enough prepaid charge. They also found loneliness among adolescents living in cities. Worse, while children were feeling isolated, confused and anxious during the first lockdown, these emotions were heightened by the second wave of covid-19.
“This time, children have been facing all those feelings and a lot more. We need to talk to our young people about grief and death, as this is what they are experiencing and seeing around them,” says Sheth. In the communities the NGO serves, close to 1,000 children have lost either one or both parents.
“We listen to them, assure that the schools will open, and provide emotional support. We have trained our social workers on how to read between the lines, picking up the child’s anxiety through the tonal quality, etc. We tell them the truth of the situation without sugar-coating anything. It’s okay to feel lonely, sad, confused—and they are not alone in feeling this,” says Sheth.
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