When the nationwide lockdown was announced to counter the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the futures and survival of several communities and families in India suddenly became a glaring question mark. The coronavirus, which is already claiming lives in the thousands around the world, has also rendered communities that already lack easy access to basics doubly vulnerable. Among the millions that have been impacted, there is also the family and community of Gayatri, a 17-year-old, who, until now was leading a rather regular life – going to school, and indulging in her favourite hobbies of stitching and reading.
Belonging to a small village in the Sitamarhi district in northern Bihar, Gayatri and her family had heard of COVID-19 from neighbours and trainers from an NGO working to end child marriage in the district. She says, “We found out about the coronavirus from our neighbours and the Didis and Bhaiyyas who train us under the ‘Marriage: No Child’s Play’ program that’s been running in our village for years.”
It was through the same didis and bhaiyyas that Gayatri and her family learnt of the precautions they needed to take to avoid contracting the virus. The family was practising social distancing, which they continue even now. “Our family does not go out of our homes unless it’s absolutely required. We wear masks and mostly try to eat farm grown vegetables.“
When the lockdown finally hit, though, life turned upside down in the village. The most urgent issue was food shortage. There were families in the village that went without food for two-three days, and required immediate urgent help and relief.
Rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS) were not being distributed in Gayatri’s village since January 2020, putting her community at an even greater disadvantage, and hence pushing them to the brink when lockdown hit. She said, “The lockdown rendered most families, including my own, hungry and unable to earn. It was an absolutely despicable situation in the first week.”
When with the support of an NGO, Gayatri called local administration in her district, Gayatri received no positive response. She was in fact, told that rations would be distributed again after the lockdown period ends.
All of this is enough to dampen the hopes of a child of seventeen, but not Gayatri. Difficult as it was, she refused to give up on her community and its needs, and decided to take matters into her own hands. She prepared a list of 910 households in her village and details of every single need that they had. With the help of the NGO, her story was shared on social media, but again, this didn’t yield positive results. Finally, she decided to write to the District Collector, which worked and immediate action was taken.“We wrote to the District Collector for help, and within two days, help came. Now we have free food and hygiene support from the government,” she said.
As the country gets divided into zones for phased lifting of the lockdown, the question really is, what’s the life that Gayatri will go back to? When asked, she says that challenges won’t end with the end of the lockdown. “We will have challenges to go back to school [once the lockdown ends]. Especially girls, because once they drop out, parents prefer to get them married for less dowry; or to simply not send them back, because it’s a hassle.”
But again, the young girl’s extraordinary courage stands out. “I have hope in my Girl Champion Group. When help was needed they rallied behind me, and we got through it. We are ready to deal with the challenges – we can do anything we set our minds to.”
For lakhs of children like Gayatri, the fight for basics will continue even after restrictions lift post-lockdown. But as we adjust to the new normal, we have a chance to rethink what this ‘normal’ should look like, and how it can better accommodate the aspirations and dreams of girls like her, who look to the future with hope and determination. The question is, will we take this chance and make it count?
If you have a message of solidarity and support for Gayatri and other children like her, or have solutions to ensure children from vulnerable communities are able to achieve their dreams and aspirations in the post-COVID world, publish your story today with #EveryOneCounts. #EveryOneCounts is a joint initiative between United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Save the Children and Youth Ki Awaaz to create conversations around how in the fight against the coronavirus, everyone counts, and every voice, every action can make a difference.