MUMBAI, – Several Indian states are building facilities with more paediatric beds, plus oxygen, due to concern that children returning to school without being vaccinated will be among the most vulnerable during a third wave of coronavirus infections.
Health administrators have taken heed of trends in the United States, where a record number of children have been hospitalised as the coronavirus Delta variant, first found in India, has surged through unvaccinated populations.
During a second wave of infections in India that peaked in April and May, hundreds of thousands of people died for want of oxygen and medical facilities, and now there are concerns that another third wave will gather during the winter months.
“We don’t know how the virus will behave, but we cannot afford to be unprepared this time around,” Suhas Prabhu, who heads the Paediatric Task Force in the big western state of Maharashtra, said.
“No mother should have to run around looking for a hospital bed when her child is sick.”
The Maharashtra government has stockpiled medicines, and built facilities for additional pediatric beds and oxygen provisions in new centres in Mumbai and Aurangabad.
Built on empty stretches of land or in re-purposed stadiums, the Mumbai facilities have a total of 1,500 pediatric beds, most of them with oxygen.
“We can upgrade this capacity to double if needed,” Suresh Kakani, a senior official with Mumbai’s civic body said.
In neighbouring Gujarat, authorities have set up 15,000 pediatric oxygen beds, health commissioner Jai Prakash Shivahare said.
India provides vaccines to people above the age 18. Most vaccines administered in India are made by AstraZeneca Plc , while shots produced by local manufacturer Bharat Biotech are also being used.
Another local firm Zydus Cadilla and Bharat Biotech are separately testing vaccines for children but the results are not expected until the year end.
Meantime, schools in at least 11 of India’s 28 states have opened after more than a year of closures, raising worries these could become breeding grounds for transmission of the virus.
As of March 2021, less than 1 pct of India’s coronavirus deaths were in the under 15 age group, according to the health ministry, and officials say the severity of the disease in this age group has been minimal so far.
Epidemiologists say there is no evidence to show that the Delta variant or any other mutations affect children more than other parts of the population.
Four years after the battle for the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, children and families are still living in damaged homes with severely limited access to clean water, electricity, and education, a report by Save the Children has found.
Raqqa, once the self-styled “capital” of the ISIL (ISIS) group in Syria, was subjected in 2017 to a heavy air and ground offensive by the US-led coalition to defeat the group and gain control of the city.
At the peak of the bombing campaign, the city faced 150 air raids a day, causing immense damage to the infrastructure and buildings, many of which remain in ruins, according to the report published on Tuesday.
“Children and their families in Raqqa live every day in a ruined city, with limited options, amid drought, pandemic and a Syria-wide economic crisis,” Sonia Khush, the Syria Response Director for Save the Children, said.
Reports estimate that at least 36 percent of the city’s buildings remain destroyed. A drought in northeast Syria has also caused a public health crisis, with a reported increase in waterborne diseases and challenges in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
While thousands of people have moved back to the city, three-quarters of Raqqa’s population rely on aid in order to buy food and other basic goods and services.
Aida*, a widow and mother of four, lives with her children in a severely damaged house that does not have running water or electricity.
The 27-year-old, who fled Aleppo nine years ago, is afraid to let her children play outside.
“I get scared when my children go outside because they might get hurt, so I do not let them go out,” she told Save the Children.
“There is a destroyed building here and I’m afraid there will be something [like a landmine] underneath. You never know. I keep them away from it.”
According to Save the Children, the conflict and its aftermath decimated Raqqa’s education sector, with 80 percent of the city’s schools damaged.
Khush said that while a decade of war has caused a mental health crisis for children and their families, children in Raqqa cannot enjoy basic activities or access services such as playing or getting an education to “find enjoyment in life and prepare for the future”.
“Children are at risk of injury and death even from doing nothing but sitting home in the rubble,” she said.
Khush called for “substantive humanitarian responses” from the international community, particularly from the anti-ISIL coalition members.
“They bear responsibility to subsequently address the consequences of their military action,” she said.
“It is vital that they and all humanitarian donors step up to ensure that basic services are restored and opportunities are provided, to give children the chance of a brighter future after all they have endured over the course of Syria’s conflict.”
Grave violations against children in conflict remain “alarmingly high”, with the coronavirus pandemic increasing their vulnerability to abduction, recruitment and sexual violence, a new United Nations report has found.
In its annual Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) report (PDF), released on Monday, the UN said at least 19,379 children affected by war in 2020 were victims of grave violations such as recruitment or rape.
The UN verified a total of 26,425 grave violations, of which 23,946 were committed in 2020 and 2,479 were committed earlier but verified only in 2020.
“Escalation of conflict, armed clashes and disregard for international humanitarian law and international human rights law had a severe impact on the protection of children,” the report found.
According to the report, the highest numbers of grave violations were recorded in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
While more than 8,400 children were killed or harmed in ongoing wars, nearly 7,000 others were recruited to fight, mainly in the DRC, Somalia, Syria, and Myanmar.
Verified cases of abduction and sexual violence against children increased by 90 and 70 percent, respectively, it said – with abductions often coupled with the “recruitment and use of children and sexual violence” including rape.
The UN said the coronavirus pandemic “aggravated existing vulnerabilities of children, including by hampering their access to education, health and social services, limiting child protection activities and shrinking safe spaces”.
Attacks on schools and hospitals were also prevalent in 2020, including serious attacks committed against girls’ education and against health facilities and their staff.
There was also an increase in the military use of schools and hospitals, especially with the brief closure of schools during COVID lockdowns – making them easy targets for military occupation and use, the report said.
“The wars of adults have taken away the childhood of millions of boys and girls again in 2020,” Virginia Gamba, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on CAAC, said.
“This is completely devastating for them, but also for the entire communities they live in, and destroys chances for a sustainable peace.”
‘List of shame’
Meanwhile, Save the Children in a statement on Monday criticised the CAAC for failing to add perpetrators of violations against children to the so-called “list of shame”, an addendum to the UN’s report which singles out parties who fail to keep children safe during conflict.
The rights group said that “in a disheartening decision”, the UN Secretary General António Guterres again failed to add the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in war-torn Yemen to the list.
“Despite killing and maiming at least 194 children in Yemen in 2020 according to UN verified data, the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition gets a green light to continue destroying children’s lives in Yemen,” Save the Children said.
“Unfortunately, other parties to the conflict in Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territory and Syria, also got a free pass for committing grave violations of children’s rights – despite the UN verifying a pattern of grave violations year after year,” it added.
Israel was not added to the list, despite the UN recording 1,031 grave violations against 340 Palestinians and three Israeli children in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Israeli security forces killed eight Palestinian children and one Israeli child last year, and 87 children reported ill-treatment and breaches of due process by Israeli forces while in detention – with 83 percent reporting physical violence.
While Save the Children welcomed the inclusion of countries such as Myanmar as situations of concern, it also noted Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Ukraine were not included.
Commenting on the report, Inger Ashing, CEO for Save the Children, said: “We strongly urge the Secretary General to reconsider his decision and hold parties to conflict all over the world to the same standard. The decision to include an armed actor in the ‘list of shame’ should be based only on a pattern of grave violations against children verified by the UN, not on politics.
“While there have been some positive steps this year, not applying the same criteria fairly and consistently can have dramatic consequences for children,” she said.
CNA Staff, – Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian war, the Catholic charity Caritas has launched a campaign to help children in Syria with much needed medical, humanitarian, and educational resources.
March 15 marks the grim anniversary of 10 years of war in Syria. The World Bank estimates that the country has suffered at least $197 billion worth of infrastructure damage during the conflict.
“Syrian children have known nothing but war,” Caritas Internationalis states on its website.
The charity’s “Tomorrow is in our hands” campaign seeks to bolster educational opportunities for Syrian children after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed 50% out of the education system.
An estimated 2.45 million Syrian children were already not attending school at the end of 2019, according to the charity. Now, 2 in 3 children in the country are out of school.
“The lack of access to education by Syrian children risks having a devastating impact on the future of the country. The education sector is in dire need of resources, and donors should fund interventions designed to lift families out of poverty,” it states.
Caritas is seeking to provide meals in line with international nutrition indicators for children at schools and to launch child oriented workshops to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases.
Eight in 10 people in Syria live below the poverty line with an estimated 11.1 million people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, including 4.7 million people in acute need in 2020. Children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and the elderly are the most at risk.
The Syrian conflict began when demonstrations sprang up across the country protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president and leader the country’s Ba’ath Party. In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters.
The civil war has been fought among the Syrian regime and a number of rebel groups. The rebels include moderates, such as the Free Syrian Army; Islamists such as Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State; and Kurdish separatists.
Russia and Iran have been supportive of the Syrian regime, while western nations have favored some rebel groups.
Cardinal Mario Zenari, the Vatican’s diplomat in Syria for the past 13 years, has said that after nearly a decade of war, the Syrian people had now been hit with a “poverty bomb” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Fr. Firas Lutfi, a Franciscan priest who served as a missionary in Aleppo at the height of the violence, witnessed the trauma endured by a generation of Syrian children who have spent the entirety of their lives in the uncertainty and tragedy of war.
The Franciscan sought to create a place of safety and healing for these kids, many of whom were suffering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.
“We observed that the children, the Aleppian children, many had trauma, post-war. Lots of them lost parents, some of them had mutilation, losing hands or legs, and they are afraid of everything,” Fr. Lutfi told CNA in 2020.
Lutfi founded the Franciscan Care Center’s post-traumatic war treatment program in Aleppo in 2017. Since then, its staff of clinical psychologists, volunteers, and social workers have served 1,500 Syrian children aged 6-17 years old.
Many children born in Syria amid the bombings and chaos of the war never received a birth certificate because their birth was not registered with the government.
To give these forgotten children an identity, the Franciscans began the “Name and Future” project in Eastern Aleppo.
“We take care of these children, and we gave them an official registration … We have in each center 500 children,” Lutfi said.
Among those cared for by the Franciscans in the centers in Aleppo are abandoned young people with Down syndrome and autism, as well as pregnant mothers in need of assistance.
Pope Francis offered encouragement to charities seeking to rebuild Syria in a video message in December.
“Every effort — large or small — made to foster the peace process is like putting a brick in the construction of a just society, one that is open to welcome, and where all can find a place to dwell in peace,” Pope Francis said.
“My thoughts go especially to the people who have had to leave their homes to escape the horrors of war, in search of better living conditions for themselves and their loved ones,” he added.
According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5.6 million people have left Syria since 2011.
The majority of refugees stayed in the Middle East, with more than half registered as living in Turkey (3.6 million in 2021) and another 1.6 million refugees also living in either Lebanon or Jordan, which also border Syria.
Within Syria itself there are 6.7 internally displaced persons, according to Caritas.
“I appeal to the international community to make every effort to facilitate this return, guaranteeing the security and economic conditions necessary for this to happen. Every gesture, every effort in this direction is precious,” Pope Francis said.
Yearly, these centers have welcomed a large number of displaced children who have migrated to Ho Chi Minh City from rural provinces. Most of them are from poor families, or difficult situations.
Happily, Friends for Street Children has also welcomed many volunteers from inside and outside Vietnam, who come to FFSC centers to share love with children through gifts, to play with them, or (most importantly) to provide them with the chance to gain knowledge, and develop their potential and life skills so they can have a better life in the future.
One of the volunteers that we most admire is Philip MacLaurin, 60, from London, England, and his wife Frances MacLaurin, 54, from Scotland. They are Catholic, and have a great affection for the poor children in Vietnam.
They live in Ho Chi Minh City and have been doing volunteer work with Friends for Street Children for about 12 years. They truly love the poor children, as well as students in Vietnam, and generously finance scholarships or support other needs to help these children have better lives and brighter futures. Although they must work hard to earn a living in Vietnam, what they do have they use to do charitable works for the poor children in Vietnam.
Philip came here to work as a director of Premier Oil’s Vietnam branch in 2006, and just retired in June 2020. Since he is not working for the company anymore, he told Sister Mary (who is in charge of caring for the orphans at the Binh Trieu warm shelter) that he would have more time to do charitable works. “I really thirst to help the poor young students, show them how to get a good job, or how to achieve success in their life in the future.”
When he was working from Monday to Friday, he spent two days on the weekend to do volunteer works in some of the Friends for Street Children centers. For example, every Saturday he taught English to younger children from 3 to 10 years old, at the warm shelter in the Binh Trieu center. These kids love to study with him because he is very friendly and creates a pleasant learning environment, not forcing them. They especially love his teaching hour when he uses video clips, nice pictures, and English songs like “Baby Shark” and the “Finger Family Song” … things that help kids remember their lessons and relax after a week of study. In fact, the aim of his teaching hour is to bring joy to children, and it also relaxed him after a hard work week.
Even more wonderful is his wife Frances, who came with her husband to Vietnam; she is a full-time volunteer, doing only charitable works. On weekdays, she teaches free English for adult children (grades six to 12) at Binh Trieu’s warm shelter and at Stephan (another warm shelter in Ho Chi Minh City that is not an FFSC center). She is a psychology teacher, and knows how to encourage children to study. She usually has prizes for children who achieve in her classes. Or she might reward them by taking them to the supermarket to choose any gifts they like, or by taking them to get fast food like pizza, spaghetti, or fried chicken at a restaurant. The children have never eaten such dishes, and are very glad to study with her.
Realizing the affection that the MacLaurins have for them, the children are very joyful and happy to see them. When they come to any Friends for Street Children center to teach or attend events, the children say “hello” loudly, then run up and hold them with welcoming hugs. The children truly love them, and consider them like their parents.
In addition, every year the MacLaurins provide scholarships for poor students with good grades in the university. They also help with gifts like money, rice or oil for children whose families are in difficult financial circumstances for the Vietnamese Tet holiday at the end of the year. They particularly like to give their share of contributions in the form of educational programs for the poor children in Friends for Street Children.
We sisters, teachers and volunteers of the Friends for Street Children program really are grateful to Phillip and Frances not only for loving the Vietnamese children and giving significant contributions for our program, but also for giving Vietnamese children a good impression of foreigners.
We are proud to have zealous foreign volunteers like them, and consider them wonderful role models for us to imitate in serving and loving the poor children. We particularly learned about their generosity and love for children in Vietnam when we did an interview with them:
Nguyen:What motivates you to love the poor children in Vietnam? MacLaurins: We are very privileged in our lives; we had a high-quality education and good jobs. Now we feel we have a lot to offer in terms of our life experience, knowledge and skills. We want to encourage disadvantaged children to achieve their potential and motivate them to have a better future.
How do you feel when helping poor children in Vietnam? It is always a pleasure because the children are so appreciative, warm and joyful, but it is also heart-wrenching to see the very difficult situations that some children live in. Too many have substandard homes and need to work to support their families. However, if we can do even a little bit to make their situation easier or encourage them in their lives, that is very rewarding for us, and hopefully for them as well.
What do you want them to do when you support them? We obviously want them to succeed. For us, success does not mean being top in the class, it means achieving their potential, and being decent, hardworking young people, who have good values and care for themselves and others.
We thank God for sending the MacLaurins to the Friends for Street Children program; all of us — staff and children — pray for them every day. May God bless their charitable works, so that they can continue to bring love and happiness to others. May God bless them with pleasure in sharing their love with the disadvantaged children in Vietnam.
As St. Paul said, “Happiness lies more in giving then in receiving” (Acts 20:35).
More children could be pushed into joining armed groups in conflict zones as families face increasing poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a top U.N. official warned on Friday.
The exact number of child soldiers is unknown, but in 2019 alone about 7,740 children – some as young as six – were recruited and used as fighters or in other roles by mostly non-state armed groups, according to United Nations data.
Speaking on International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers – or Red Hand Day – the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba said that number was likely to rise as a result of coronavirus-related hardship.
“There is a real threat that as communities lack work, and are more and more isolated because of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, we’re going to see an increase in the recruitment of children for a lack of options,” she said.
“More and more children will be either attracted or sometimes told by their parents to just go and join because someone’s got to feed them,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call.
Girls and boys are still forced to join armed groups, as fighters or in roles such as cooks or for sexual exploitation, in at least 14 countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Somalia, the United Nations has said.
The United Nations called for a global ceasefire last year to help fight COVID-19, but armed groups have continued fighting and Gamba said the pandemic had also hampered efforts to protect children in conflict zones.
She said she was concerned about a surge in attacks by Islamist militants against children in the Sahel and Lake Chad region, including kidnappings, killings and forced displacement, noting that COVID-19 was changing armed groups’ tactics.
“As children are not in schools, therefore the target of attacking a school for abduction or recruitment of children … is shifting to where the children are,” she said.
The pandemic has also delayed progress on implementing legislation in different countries to prohibit and criminalize the recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups, Gamba said, calling for lawmakers to prioritise the issue.
“The issue of accountability is fundamental,” she said.
But despite some worrying trends, progress on combating the use of child soldiers is being made, Gamba said.
In South Sudan, the number of violations against children including their recruitment as fighters has significantly declined over the past five years, according to her office’s annual report.
And last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted Dominic Ongwen, a commander of Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and former child soldier, of dozens of crimes including child abductions and murder.
Ongwen’s conviction at the Hague-based court was applauded by the United Nations, but Gamba said a concerted effort at the national level was the best way to stop children becoming soldiers.
“In all our joint action plans with the government, and with the armed groups, we make it very, very clear we expect to see an oversight of the way their own officers, their own personnel are engaging in recruitment,” she said.
This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.
The goal is as simple as it is complicated to achieve: Shift the care of children from institutions like orphanages to a family or family-like environment.
Catholic sisters in three African nations — Uganda, Zambia and Kenya — are leading the way in creating new models for caring for children. Their efforts are the core of the recent launch of Catholic Care for Children International (CCCI) under the auspices of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) — one of many faith groups leading policy reform and family-based alternatives to institutional care.
In traditional African culture, children were raised by their clan and extended family relations who nurtured them into responsible adults, but various socio-economic factors contributed to a break-up of such family ties. That has led to the formation of large childcare institutions which generally lack the necessary environment for children to thrive and develop.
Decades of research has shown that children living in institutional care are extremely exposed to neglect, physical and sexual abuse. A lack of a stable relationships and interactions among children in institutions affect their foundations for brain development, resulting in poor mental health, academic failure, and increased chances of behavioral problems later in life, studies show.
That’s a key reason the international sisters’ group UISG is encouraging congregations to end the placement of children in large institutions and instead support community-based, family-like alternatives.
During the launch of this global initiative Oct. 2, which was streamed online, religious orders of women and men were urged to join the initiative. “We understand that the family is the best place for a child to grow holistically,” Sri Lankan Good Shepherd Sr. Niluka Perera, coordinator of Catholic Care for Children International, told participants. “Therefore, it is the responsibility of us who are committed to the care of vulnerable children to give the best place and environment for a child to grow.”
Loreto Sr. Patricia Murray, executive secretary of the UISG, noted that there are at least 9,000 Catholic residential institutions or orphanages worldwide serving almost 5.5 million children. She urged religious institutions to learn from what others are doing in different countries to provide the best possible care for the vulnerable children.
“Catholic Care for Children functions well in three countries — Zambia, Uganda and Kenya. It’s associated very closely with the conference of religious in each country, and we see that as a very good model,” said Murray in an interview with Global Sisters report. “We can move our focus to supporting family life because we know that 80% of children are not orphans but have a living parent or a family structure, and that family structure can be helped to keep the child at home.” UISG is carefully considering other countries where the model can be implemented, she said.
Poverty and family breakdown have contributed to the growth of institutional care, said Kathleen Mahoney, a program officer of GHR Foundation, which has “Children in Families” as one of its program areas. Through the respective religious associations, GHR has been providing funding in the three countries for the training of sisters in social work, case management and child care programs, and assisting in the transition from institutional to family care.
“GHR has a long history of working with Catholic sisters around the globe, and we really see them as tremendous spiritual and social asset for the world,” she said. The social and spiritual aspects came together in Zambia and Uganda and recently in Kenya where “we really see sisters at the helm,” she said. “Catholic Care for Children is a sister-led, charism-driven movement to improve care for children. We see real potential for this to grow.”
Global Sisters Report reported from Uganda, Zambia and Kenya on the program models and how UISG is aiming to play a role in expanding these models to elsewhere in the world and trying to de-emphasize institutional care.
The independent Africa Regional Certification Commission (ARCC) for Polio Eradication officially declared that the 47 countries in the UN World Health Organization (WHO) African Region are free of the virus, with no cases reported for four years.
“This is a momentous milestone for Africa. Now future generations of African children can live free of wild polio,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Polio is a viral disease that can cause paralysis, and mainly affects children under five.
The virus is transmitted from person to person, mostly through contact with infected faeces, or less frequently through contaminated water or food. It enters the body through the mouth and multiplies inside the intestines.
While there is no cure for polio, the disease can be prevented through a simple and effective oral vaccine, thus protecting a child for life.
‘A historic day for Africa’
The ARCC certification entailed a decades-long process of documentation and analysis of polio surveillance, immunization and laboratory capacity, as well as field verification visits to each country in the region.
The last case of wild poliovirus in the region was detected in Nigeria in 2016.
“Today is a historic day for Africa,” said Professor Rose Gana Fomban Leke, ARCC Chairperson, announcing the certification.
A commitment by leaders
The journey to eradication began with a promise made in 1996 by Heads of State during the 32nd session of the Organization of African Unity held in Yaoundé, Cameroon, where they pledged to stamp out polio, which was paralyzing an estimated 75,000 children annually on the continent.
That same year, the late Nelson Mandela jumpstarted Africa’s commitment to polio eradication by launching the Kick Polio Out of Africa campaign, supported by Rotary International, which mobilized nations to step up efforts to ensure every child received the polio vaccine.
Nearly two million spared
Since then, polio eradication efforts have spared up to 1.8 million children from crippling life-long paralysis, and saved approximately 180,000 lives, WHO reported.
“This historic achievement was only possible thanks to the leadership and commitment of governments, communities, global polio eradication partners and philanthropists,” said Dr. Moeti.
“I pay special tribute to the frontline health workers and vaccinators, some of whom lost their lives, for this noble cause.”
Always remain vigilant
However, Dr. Moeti warned that Africa must remain vigilant against a resurgence of the wild poliovirus.
Keeping vaccination rates up also wards against the continued threat of vaccine-derived polio, or cVDPV2.
WHO explained that while rare, vaccine-derived polioviruses can occur when the weakened live virus in the oral polio vaccine passes among populations with low levels of immunization. Over time, the virus mutates to a form that can cause paralysis.
Adequate immunization thus protects against wild polio and circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses, the UN agency said.
Learning from polio eradication
WHO officials in Africa believe that the experience in eradicating wild poliovirus has other benefits for health on the continent.
Despite weak health systems, and significant logistical and operational challenges, countries collaborated effectively to achieve the milestone, according to Dr. Pascal Mkanda, Coordinator of WHO Polio Eradication Programme in the region.
“With the innovations and expertise that the polio programme has established, I am confident that we can sustain the gains, post-certification, and eliminate cVDPV2,” he said.
The experience also will inform response to other challenges, both new and ongoing, Dr. Moeti added.
“The expertise gained from polio eradication will continue to assist the African region in tackling COVID-19 and other health problems that have plagued the continent for so many years and ultimately move the continent toward universal health coverage,” she said. “This will be the true legacy of polio eradication in Africa.”
MEXICO CITY, – The arrest of three Mexican women accused of trafficking more than 20 children from within their extended family has been criticized by rights activists, who say they are being punished for being poor.
But campaigners and family members reject the trafficking charges, saying the three indigenous women – who are mothers to some of the children – simply took the youngsters to work with them occasionally, as many low-income parents do in Mexico.
“Lots of families… go out selling with their daughters and sons because there isn’t anywhere to leave them,” said Jennifer Haza, director of Chiapas children’s rights nonprofit Melel Xojobal.
“For us, there isn’t evidence of human trafficking,” she said, adding that instead of pursuing prosecutions in such cases, the state government should be looking at ways to give vulnerable children a better start in life.
Mother-of-five Enereida Gomez, sister of one of the detained women, said they sometimes had no choice but to take the children with them onto the streets while they sold handicrafts.
“We’re not criminals,” Gomez said, sobbing at a recent news conference on the case, which has received international media attention.
Another local nonprofit Colectiva Cereza has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) to ask for its intervention in the case, citing what it called inconsistencies in the investigation.
But Chiapas State Attorney General Jorge Llaven has defended the prosecutions, saying children can be trafficked by their parents and that being poor cannot be an excuse for crime.
“Exploitation, of course, is a crime that is closely linked with poverty, but we can’t use poverty to justify a crime or else we would become ungovernable,” he told reporters earlier this month.
“We also aren’t criminalizing poverty, I want to make that clear,” he said.
The prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for further comment about the case, which received renewed scrutiny following the death in custody of Adolfo Gomez, an indigenous Tzotzil man and the grandfather of most of the children.
His wife was also detained.
TRAFFICKING LAW REFORM?
Labor trafficking expert Monica Salazar said it was important to consider the conditions that the three detained mothers were living in themselves, and what benefit they got from the situation.
Salazar, who supports reforming the law, said it should be updated to reflect the reality of poor families.
“It’s not the same to talk about a ‘benefit’ that no one dies of hunger in a family versus organized crime taking advantage,” said Salazar, the founder of nonprofit Dignificando El Trabajo (DITRAC).
More than three quarters of people live in poverty in Chiapas, a southern state bordering Guatemala.
Thousands of children, including some of those found in the raid, do not have birth certificates or go to school, Haza said.
Twenty of the children who were found are now in a government shelter and Melel Xojobal is trying to reunite them with grandparents and other relatives. The other three are babies, so are with their mothers in prison, Haza said.
Prosecutors raided the house in Chiapas after Adolfo Gomez, the grandfather, was detained in a separate case linked to the disappearance of a two-year-old boy.
The missing boy was eventually found safe and well but Gomez died in prison within two weeks of his arrest. Relatives say prison authorities told them he had died by suicide, but they claim his body showed signs of torture.
Chiapas prosecutors said last week they had arrested two public servants for breaches of their duty of care of Gomez.
An estimated 463 million children have been unable to access remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread school closures, according to the United Nations children’s fund.
A new report published on Thursday by UNICEF said at least one-third of the world’s schoolchildren lack the equipment or electronic access that would allow them to pursue distance education.
“The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted for months on end is a global education emergency,” Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, said in a statement.
“The repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades to come,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused the largest disruption to education in history, with schools closed in some 160 countries in mid-July, affecting an estimated 1.5 billion students, according to the UN.
A new report published in July by international charity Save the Children said nearly 10 million children may never go back to school because of deep budget cuts and rising poverty caused by the pandemic.
In an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, many countries switched to online learning, but aid groups say this has only widened the learning gap between children from rich and poor families.
The UNICEF report underlined gaping geographical differences in children’s access to distance education, with far fewer affected in Europe, for example, than in Africa or parts of Asia.
The report is based on data gathered from roughly 100 countries, measuring public access to the internet, television and radio.
Even children with adequate access may face other obstacles to distance education – whether the lack of a good workspace at home, pressure to do other work for the family, or a lack of technical support when computer problems arise, the UNICEF report said.
Of the students around the world unable to access virtual education, 67 million are in Eastern and Southern Africa, 54 million in western and central Africa, 80 million in the Pacific and East Asia, 37 million in the Middle East and North Africa, 147 million in South Asia, and 13 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.
No figures were given for Canada or the United States – the worst-affected country by the virus – where the issue of reopening of schools has sparked fierce political debate and concern among educators.
With the new school year soon to begin in many countries – including in-person classes in many places – UNICEF urged governments to “prioritise the safe reopening of schools when they begin easing lockdown restrictions”.
Where reopening is impossible, governments should arrange for “compensatory learning for lost instructional time”, the report said.