India must pay attention to children left orphaned post-Covid

Shweta Singh | Updated on June 21, 2021

The safety and development of children who are left without caregivers must be given priority. The Indian sense of a village that raises the child is in need of being resurrected

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-21 laid bare the social isolation and social disconnect within Western societies and, in India, it shows the vulnerability of the urban family — as children have been orphaned, and individuals struggle in the absence of social support.

Foster care, kinship care, community capacity building, these institutionalised systems of care for the broken family and its children struggle within the US and the UK during normal times. Often, children who emerge from these systems become at risk for homelessness. In this crisis, India’s policy and programme planners will need to think quickly about the children who are left to fend for themselves.

We must realise that there is no substitute to the large collectivist norms that facilitated raising of children as a joint responsibility of adults. It also facilitated natural systems of care during personal or social crisis or calamity. Even with state support, given the disconnect between relatives and kin, and levels of corruption in institutions, how will the children survive? Schools and special institutions will be needed to fill this gap for now…but for future of society and our community, we will need a rethink.

Family does form the foundation of the Indian social system. By default, all those living in one house tied to each other with familial kinship – nuclear or joint — serve both a functional and a symbolic value for the urban and rural society. Limited accountability of our 75-year-old state infrastructure and our 3,000-year-old civilisation have also contributed to traditional role and importance of family.

While, at the same time, the ultra-modern spaces also exist across cities marked by social disorganisation leading to single person households and single parent one, with older family members in solitary living or in old-age homes. The emerging pattern can be seen in the sociological transformations of US urban society too.

Family transformation

The American family transformed dramatically from a two parent, male-gendered, multi-generational unit in 1950s to 40 per cent single parent families in 1980s to now a highly variable understanding of what constitutes the family as a unit.

Beyond structure though, the values of ‘western’, rather upper middle-class Caucasian family, transported swiftly in the last 30 years and became the abstract context of family functioning in cosmopolitan milieus. The dominance of the ‘expert-ordained’, ‘market-friendly’ models of parenting in the US have wreaked havoc on ethnic minorities and low-income groups within US; resulting in a large portion of these family groups being represented in the social welfare system, and their children in foster care.

Amongst key norms that have gained traction, thanks to popular media and sponsored social research, is the ‘training manual’ paradigms of parenting. These models encourage high social, economic, and psychological investment in children that become unsustainable over time. Simultaneously, a Freudian clinical approach to undoing parenting attachment means a symbolic cord-cutting when the child turns 18 with the expectation of emotional and financial separation are hallmarks of healthy parenting.

Another layer in this phenomenon is the advancement of theories of conflict, distrust, and disappointment between a parent and a child as a natural corollary of growing up. Ever-increasing rates of divorce and separation across all genders, the ever-changing definition of family, ever-flexible responsibilities of childcare — care-giving itself has become a contentious space in gender-rights debate. The child and the young adult consequently experience both personal, social, and economic instability for most of young adulthood. There is no concept of community collective as “adult solidarity” had become an undesirable value.

New values

Models and curriculum designed in psychology labs to create new values are ultimately just ideas that serve more than the goal of betterment of society or people or children. Its foundations are expansion of consumerism in market economies like the US and allegiance to the state in communist regimes like China.

The market has ensured that in individualistic mentalities the goods offer as much scope for forming an attachment as any interpersonal relationship, making it easy to prioritise self-gratification over social obligations. On the other hand, in state dominating societies, keeping the state above all affiliations has made it an ultra-unit that controls and limits loyalty to family.

In the Indian context, shared sanskar or generational values guiding behaviour meant that many people provided and maintained the family. Thus, ensuring survival of kin and absorbing individual liabilities and fragilities. At its very core, the sense of family is one of belonging, it is a personalised experience of being loved, and of being needed, that no institution, state, or mandated group, can reproduce.

It provides a sense of security and of identity to children. As we figure out Covid’s impact on our world; the safety and development of our children who are left without caregivers must be a priority. Also, this is the right time to review, examine, and expose the performative norms automatically transposed from developed to developing societies. The Indian sense of a village that raises the child is in need of being resurrected. And ‘ideal’ parenting and ‘lab’ generated manuals on children need to be deconstructed and their objectives debated.

The writer is Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago and Founding Director of The Think Women Company

Published on June 21, 2021

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