Re-imagining the role of the police in COVID-19 times

In India the police are playing a crucial role in violence prevention and protection of child rights during the Pandemic.

Tannistha Datta, Sharmila Ray and Moira Dawa
Covid19 Response planning by the police in Uttar Pradesh.
Media Cell, SP office, Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh
12 May 2020

The announcement of the creation of a Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights is a big win for children in India. This announcement came on the occasion of the ‘Child protection during COVID-19’ webinar organized by the National Police Academy in collaboration with UNICEF on 12 May 2020. 

Mr. Atul Karwal, IPS, Director, National Police Academy, announced the plan to establish a dedicated Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, saying “The police together with the community can act as a force multiplier to enhance the effectiveness with which they support children during COVID-19.”

COVID-19 has disrupted the environments in which children grow and develop. These disruptions to families, friendships, daily routines and the wider community can have negative consequences for children’s well-being, development and protection.

In addition, measures used to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 can expose children to protection risks. Home-based, facility-based and zonal-based quarantine and isolation measures can all negatively impact children and their families. There are also indications that domestic violence is on the increase.

Additional Superintendent of Police, Ms Swati Sharma interacts with school children on the occasion of World Children’s Day in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
Sindhu Binujeeth, Consultant, Udaipur Division, Rajasthan
Additional Superintendent of Police, Ms Swati Sharma interacts with school children on the occasion of World Children’s Day in Udaipur, Rajasthan.

In the last few weeks of lockdown, for example, CHILDLINE, an emergency helpline for children, reported a 50 per cent increase in calls from children in distress. During COVID-19, families can also resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as child labour or child marriage. Recently, the Minister of  Women and Child Development, Government of India, reported that 898 child marriages had been prevented through CHILDLINE's efforts since the lock down began.   

In such a situation, the police have a critical role to play. Whether it is to provide support to children in distress, ensuring violence prevention in camps and temporary shelters for migrant populations, being vigilant and responsive on any reports of violations of children’s rights or ensuring children are referred to child protection services.

UNICEF has developed a guideline for police on their role in protecting children from violence and exploitation during COVID-19. These are being adapted and used in several states.

Human Rights is a governance issue. Every citizen has a right to protection against disasters – that’s social policing.

Usually, policing is thought of in terms of prevention of crime and maintenance of law and order. But there is a growing realization that it is much more than that.

We are pushing the envelope. We have built public trust in the police force through our humanitarian response to COVID-19.

- Mr SN Pradhan, Director General of Police, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).

The webinar reflected on the COVID-19 specific challenges thrown up for children and highlighted the role of police as invested in the welfare of citizens especially children. It also provided a platform for police officers from across the Country to share their experiences and lessons learnt.

The long-term objective of the interactive knowledge session was to build a network/cohort of officers interested, knowledgeable and skilled in matters related to child safety thereby building a national movement to protect children from violence and harm.

"The police are one of the most critical partners for UNICEF’s child protection work. They are usually the first to respond in any situation where children are in distress. Hence, their sensitivity towards children and the way in which they handle cases are critical for the experience - and the trust - a child will have on the justice system," said Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative in India addressing the webinar.

"Children represent 40 per cent of the population in India. As the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres said recently, children may not be the face of the COVID-19 Pandemic, but they are one of its greatest victims.

"We are proud to partner with the National Police Academy to ensure the impacts of COVID-19 are mitigated among the population and that children receive the protection they deserve from a duty bearer of such critical importance as the police," said Dr Haque.

The power of collaborative partnerships    

UNICEF works across 17 States in India and has a strong collaboration and partnership with the Police. In states like Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgargh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, UNICEF is providing technical support to the state police on child friendly policing initiatives which have led child sensitive police becoming a part of the culture in state police forces.

In Jharkhand UNICEF and the police have developed a set of indicators and established a committee that monitors and certifies police stations as child friendly. These are not just infrastructural, but also pertain to training and the processes being followed by police in handling cases involving children.

In West Bengal, UNICEF is supporting the Kolkata Police in planning and implementing programmes to ensure prevention of violence against women and children utilizing the Nirbhaya fund.

In Odisha, UNICEF and the state police led a statewide campaign on prevention of child sexual abuse demonstrating the significant role police has in prevention and response.