We must end child trafficking – by Natasha Poonawalla

It is no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 has had a transformative impact on our world, the effects of which we will be dealing with in the years to come. While we are aware of the devastating toll it has taken on global health, there are invisible consequences of COVID that are just beginning to emerge.

There are increasing fears that the pandemic and the associated economic costs arising from it could put millions of young children across the world at risk of trafficking and abuse. In India, millions of people working in the informal sector are estimated to have lost their jobs in the last few months. As they look for food and income to support their families, they could become easy targets of traffickers looking to exploit the situation.

The British Asian Trust works with some of the most vulnerable communities in South Asia, and they are aware that traffickers can trap vulnerable families by promising well-paying jobs for their children in cities and giving them cash advances to overcome any resistance. These children find themselves in exploitative labour or even sexual abuse, unable to contact their families. Many families might also be forced to turn to measures like taking high interest loans at this time that they are unable to pay back, which can also lead to their children trapped in never ending cycles of labour or sexual abuse. Many unscrupulous employers too will be looking to recover from the pandemic-caused economic downturn by hiring children and decreasing their costs.

Apart from increasing economic vulnerability of already poor families, the pandemic has also affected the safety of many children because of the prolonged school closures. We know from the work of the British Asian Trust and its partners that as long as children are in school, they have a safe space, and in India, access to at least one nutritious meal each day provided by the Government.

There are already indications that the poorest and most vulnerable families are facing grave risks. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that the pandemic is increasing opportunities for traffickers to take advantage of the vulnerable, while decreasing the capacity of governments and NGOs to provide essential services to victims.

In India, the Supreme Court has recognized the growing evidence that traffickers are already approaching potential victims, and has asked civil society to support the Government to prevent this. And Childline India Foundation, India’s leading helpline for children, reported that calls to its 1098 helpline about children in distress went up by 50% since the start of the pandemic.

As a supporter of the British Asian Trust and Chair of the British Asian Trust’s Children’s Protection Fund for India, I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to recognize the risks to the most vulnerable and provide protection to them. As not only a committed philanthropist but also as a mother, I feel this responsibility acutely. I was privileged to launch the British Asian Trust’s anti-trafficking fund with HRH The Prince of Wales and my dear friend Katy Perry in February this year. It is in the spirit of that commitment and responsibility that I urge the world to come together to protect the most vulnerable families and children during this time. We must prevent harm to children by ensuring that they have food, their families can access safety nets, and that communities are made aware of the impending threats to their children’s lives and safety.

I am committed to working with the British Asian Trust and its partners to achieve our joint vision of protecting children from harm and ensuring they have access to the same opportunities in future as all of us.

by Natasha Poonawalla
30 July 2020