Emergency Helplines in Emergency Times

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Emergency Helplines in Emergency Times

The national child helpline in India received a record number of calls during the country’s first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Its ability to provide a safety net for children’s protection rights can be an inspiration for other countries.

The national helpline for children in India, CHILDLINE, received a record number of calls when the first COVID-19 lockdown was imposed on the country in 2020. When children are confined in their homes with minimal contact with teachers, friends and other confidants, phone helplines can be a lifeline out of an abusive family. Beyond India, it has also been attested in a global UNICEF study that child rights violations such as domestic abuse and child marriages are significant side-effects of pandemic lockdowns. A well-functioning child helpline can therefore be a crucial tool in child rights preparedness for emergencies, specifically when it comes to children’s protection rights.

A scalable helpline model
CHILDLINE India was, according to its founder, Jeroo Billimoria, the first child helpline in a ‘developing’ country. Its origins are as follows: in 1992 following India’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a group of social workers from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences advocated for a child helpline in order to implement the Convention. Launched in 1996, CHILDLINE went from being a university ‘field action project’ to being operated by various non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and today it is central government scheme. It is part of the Juvenile Justice Act, a key child protection law in India, and it is included in the country’s Integrated Child Protection Scheme. Its on-the-ground implementation continues to be done by hundreds of local NGOs across the country, with overall management by CHILDLINE India Foundation in Mumbai.

Any child or adult in India can call the toll-free number 1098 night and day if she/he, or someone she/he knows, is in trouble. The call goes to one of CHILDLINE’s central call centres in the region from which the person is calling. Unlike its European and North-American counterparts, CHILDLINE India provides more than counselling over the phone—it also does ‘intervention’, that is, physically visiting children and families, and at times rescuing children caught in, for instance, child labour or begging, or who have run away from home.

If a call requires intervention, CHILDLINE promises to arrive to the child within one hour. This is possible because there is a national network of NGOs tasked with the intervention role. NGO-hired social workers meet the child, assess their situation and then connect the child with appropriate authorities. The functioning of CHILDLINE thus depends on the relationship between local NGOs and local authorities.

The calls that come to CHILDLINE deal with a range of child rights, but primarily have to do with protection of children from abuse: it can be physical abuse in the family or at school, sexual abuse, or forms of exploitation such as engaging children in begging and labour. By linking children—the rights holders—to appropriate legal duty-bearers, CHILDLINE is engaged in securing the implementation of legislation on child rights, including the Right to Education Act and the Protection of Children against Sexual Abuse Act.

CHILDLINE in the COVID-19 lockdown
When the lockdown came, CHILDLINE kept working. They reduced the amount of people in their offices and took related public-health precautions, but still made sure that someone was responding to calls 24-7. However, they also faced challenges with staff availability because many social workers themselves were in lockdown or COVID-positive.

As the lockdown went on, there were shifts in the volume of calls on particular topics. Calls about corporal punishment in schools naturally decreased since schools were closed, but calls about domestic abuse and child marriages rose. When girls are not able to attend school, families may consider it economically more beneficial to marry their daughters at a young age than waiting for schools to reopen: this has led a spike in child marriages during the lockdown in India, from the South to the North. Calls also increased from children who had been street sellers; the need to find new livelihoods made them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. There were also children who were not receiving sufficient nutrition due to not getting the midday meal at school. More generally, children who would usually be able to talk to friends and teachers about their problems in the family no longer had this opportunity.

The need for a child helpline thus became more acute. Immediately after the nationwide lockdown was announced in India in 2020, CHILDLINE succeeded in their demand to be considered as an ‘essential service’ during the lockdown. Not only is it the first point of contact between children and ‘the system’, it also serves other crucial functions. For example, its unique database of incoming call categories is an enormous resource and databank on child rights across India. It is because of CHILDLINE that we are able, at a systematic and national level, to determine what issues affect children most in lockdowns.

Challenges and lessons in operating a helpline
‘Human rights preparedness’ for emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic needs to include a child-friendly, institutionalised mechanism of asking for help. As one of the world’s largest child helplines, the Indian example can show us the necessity for such a mechanism during a pandemic. A key lesson for other countries is that if one wants to develop a well-functioning child helpline from the ground up as it was in India, it requires years of adaption and dealing with challenges—challenges such as spreading the service and brand uniformly across a large and diverse country; balancing advocacy with service implementation; maintaining independence from its partly politically appointed board; negotiating with a changing landscape of bureaucrats; providing even minimum-wage salaries for its frontline workers; including children’s voices while mainstreaming approaches to child protection nationally; and spreading awareness about the helpline’s number. Most importantly, CHILDLINE is dependent on a well-functioning and willing public administration, and India’s child protection system continues to have glaring funding gaps and implementation flaws. Thus, it required years of advocacy, networking and, crucially, trust and awareness with children to reach where CHILDLINE is today.

CHILDLINE India’s core mandate is to ensure children’s protection rights, and despite continuous challenges, the helpline’s ability to fulfil this core function is something from which countries across the world can learn. The key lesson is that a functional child helpline—and especially an expansive, national one like India’s—is not something that is possible to set up during an emergency, but if built robustly from the ground up, it can be the crucial link between children who have had their rights violated as a consequence of the lockdown, and their legal duty bearers.

Therese Boje Mortensen

Written by Therese Boje Mortensen

Therese Boje Mortensen is a PhD candidate in human rights studies at Lund University, Sweden. She is an alumna of the European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation (EMA).

Cite as: Boje Mortensen, Therese. "Emergency Helplines in Emergency Times", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 1 July 2021, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/emergency-helplines-in-emergency-times.html


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