Five months after the World Health Organisation officially declared coronavirus a global pandemic, our partners continue to work with street children as they face continued uncertainty. With the exception of our projects in Sierra Leone, coronavirus has caused significant disruption to the work we had planned for 2020. The virus has upended everything, and the ongoing repercussions are affecting almost every aspect of our work with street children.
In our last update, we shared news from our emergency response work with street children around the world. Whilst this vital work is still very much ongoing across all of the countries we work in, this latest update report focuses specifically on our projects in India and Nepal – two countries that have been significantly affected by the effects of coronavirus, with street children being some of the hardest hit.
Poorest suffer most
As governments struggle with the economic fallouts from the pandemic, we know that it is the poorest who suffer the most. In Nepal, it has been widely predicted the country could see a dramatic increase in unemployment levels as thousands of migrant workers return home due to loss of work overseas. Prior to the pandemic, salaries sent back by Nepalese workers made up more than 25 percent of the country’s GDP, so a reduction in these remittances will undoubtedly increase already high poverty levels. With such powerful economic pressures, the risk of more children being pushed out onto the streets and forced to work or be exploited in other ways is rapidly increasing.
Latest reports from India paint an equally challenging picture, where effects from the pandemic are already creating an environment where children are at serious risk of a new kind of modern slavery. In Delhi, during the early outbreak of the virus, many daily-wage workers left the city to return to their villages. Now, with the recent relaxation of lockdown measures and the absence of these workers, there has been a rise in demand for cheap labour. Street children are at a growing risk of being recruited to work in these dangerous and often exploitative conditions.
Many of the projects Toybox funds focus on supporting children and young people on the streets to make long-term changes to their lives through education and livelihood initiatives. However, we know that street children are increasingly vulnerable during emergencies and that this crisis has made their already difficult and dangerous lives even more precarious.
As the scale of the pandemic became clear and restrictions on movement were enforced, we knew we needed to act swiftly to pause planned activities and instead focus on meeting the immediate and most pressing needs of the children we work alongside.
This decision was simple for us - we could not expect children to engage with planned project activities or focus on their studies and training during a global pandemic - a time when they are incredibly vulnerable, have little to no means of support and have no idea where their next meal is coming from.
“In Kathmandu the number of cases is increasing day by day. People are at the mercy of God. If the virus is contracted, they do not know what will happen. The main concern for the children is access to food, shelter, protection and medical care. We are also worried about their studies.”
Bijay (below) works as a Peer Educator for our partner SathSath. During the pandemic he has been part of the team helping to distribute emergency food packages, soap and face masks to vulnerable children and families. For many children, particularly those who are unregistered and have been denied access to government support, this has been a vital lifeline.
11-year old Sahana lives with her family in a small dwelling in one of Delhi’s most highly populated and congested slums. Life in this overcrowded slum is unimaginably challenging - there is just one toilet in the whole of the area, which since the outbreak of coronavirus, the family have been too scared to use.
Neither of Sahana’s parents have been able to work since lockdown began and they had no savings or a ration card to be able to purchase emergency supplies. Her school also closed and stopped distributing food. Sahana told our partner in India, CHETNA, “I don’t know if we will die of Covid-19, but if conditions keep getting worse, we will starve.”
For children like Sahana, CHETNA’s support has undoubtedly been vital to their survival, as, despite existing government food distribution measures, many citizens, especially street families and migrant workers, were not given access to these benefits. There have also been widespread reports of police brutality used against children found on the streets searching for food.
Sanjay Gupta, CHETNA’s CEO commented, "The government was quick in releasing relief mechanisms but the issues of caste and class in India, which are prevalent on the streets and in slums, cannot be wiped out overnight. In several cases, if there was a queue for food distribution, these children were asked to stand at the end. Because of their attire, their matted hair and smell, people were afraid that they would contract the virus from the children."
As part of their response work, CHETNA has been using community spaces to distribute emergency food supplies and hygiene kits which include soap, masks and feminine hygiene products. Hand-washing stations have been installed in these distribution sites where families also receive information on how to keep themselves safe. The team have also distributed educational materials and are undertaking daily phone calls with children to support them with their studies. Support group meetings have been delivered virtually and mobile top-ups provided to children to ensure they are able to stay in regular contact.
Sejun is 8 and lives with his mother in a small rented room in one of the slum areas in Kathmandu, Nepal. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, he had been regularly attending one of our partner SathSath’s education and learning centres, and his mother had been supporting the family by working as a domestic maid. However, since the beginning of lockdown Sejun’s mother has not been able to work. Now, despite national restrictions easing, her employers have not asked her to return. Whilst she is currently searching for new employment, pressure is mounting from her landlord to pay rent.
Recently when Sejun was asked what made him happy, he responded playing with his friends and that he really misses them. He also said that he is desperate to go back to school and to the learning centre.
His family’s current economic situation is also weighing heavily on him - it is something he told project workers made him feel scared and unsafe.
During the pandemic, it has been crucial for SathSath to focus on supporting children like Sejun by meeting their immediate and most pressing needs. Many of these children were already living on the very fringes of society, reliant on irregular and low-paid work; whose precarious situations have further deepened during this crisis. In order to meet children’s urgent needs, SathSath has been distributing emergency food packages, hand soap and facemasks, as well as educational resources to help children continue with their studies at home. The team have also been supporting the emotional needs of children through telephone counselling sessions.
Give a gift today to support our work with street children during the coronavirus pandemic
Naomi Hall Opiyo, Toybox’s new Director of Impact and Programmes, reflects on the impact coronavirus is having on lives of street children and how as an organisation Toybox is continually adapting its work to ensure the children we work alongside are being supported in the ways they need most.
Initially, most of the countries we work in went into lockdown at a similar time to the UK - yet with limited cases. Working closely with my team in the UK and our partners across the world, we carefully assessed which project activities needed to be paused, which could be adapted to continue in different ways to fit within restrictions, and where there were specific new needs arising as a result of the pandemic on children’s livelihoods, food security and mental health. We then began our emergency response work.
Fast forward a few months and, after a slow onset, the crisis is now hitting countries like India and Nepal hard. Instead of losing hope, we are working with our partners to re-examine what we can do to support street children in this ‘new normal’ and how to help ensure they do not lose hope either. Ensuring children can access education, birth registration, first aid and counselling remain as important as ever, plus additional knowledge and skills to keep themselves safe and access available services.
Starting a new role at the height of a global pandemic was not exactly ideal however it has certainly enabled me to hit the ground running and witness the amazing commitment of Toybox staff, supporters and partners, all of which make it such a unique organisation to be a part of.
We are incredibly thankful that our partners have been able to continue to support so many children during this crisis. This simply would not have happened without the ongoing commitment of our wonderful supporters like you.
I continue to be moved and encouraged by the stories we hear from the children as I witness the difference your support is making to their lives today.
Thank you so much for all you do to support the street children we work with and for continuing to stand alongside us during this time of great uncertainty. Never has our mission felt so relevant and important.
Your kind words and messages of encouragement really have meant so much to me and the team over the last few months. If you would like to leave a message of support for us to share with our partners, you can do so by completing the form below.