Two-year-old Maryam Wani keeps insisting on being allowed to go outdoors and visit her maternal relatives, some ten kilometers away. The Wani family lives in Srinagar’s Chanapora area. “It has almost been a year since Maryam met them,” said her mother, Arus Wani. “Initially, we went there twice or thrice but now it has been more than six months since we met them in person.”

According to Ms. Wani, a homemaker, Maryam sometimes screams out of frustration and bites her own arms. “She was supposed to join the school this year but now looking at the current situation, it seems impossible,” said Ms. Wani, adding that she was worried that Maryam was going to miss out on a lot.

Maryam’s emotional dependence on her mother has increased and has also developed mood swings. “She doesn’t listen to me and has become irritable,” she said. Adding that, at the same time, Maryam “wants me to be around her all the time and even follows me to the washroom, so she can wash her hands.”

The coronavirus pandemic had prompted lockdowns across the world but Kashmir has already spent several months in a lockdown beginning on 5 August, last year–when the Government of India unilaterally abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and enforced a strict lockdown. On 5 August 2020, educational institutions will complete a year of a shutdown. 

The constant lockdowns in Kashmir have taken away the freedom of children to play outdoors and socialise at schools, which can lead to various mental health-related issues and also, affect the social development of children.

A life of restrictions

Five-year-old Fatimah Khan misses her school and spending time outdoors with her parents. “I love going to school and meeting my friends. I miss them,” sadness becomes visible on her face, as she says this. All she knows about the current restrictions is that a disease called the coronavirus kills peoples, and it is all over the place.

 “I wash my hands many times a day and I also sanitize,” she said.

“It has become difficult to deal with my children,” said Showkat Khan, her father. His three children, aged between 2 and 8, have become irritable and unyielding since the lockdown began in August, last year. “It’s not their fault, they sometimes feel like caged birds, because of which they have developed behavioral issues.”

Mr. Khan, a businessman, said that his children now get easily angered. The lack of physical activity had made them spend more time watching television or playing games on mobile phones. “My two-year-old son cannot even eat his meals without having a phone in his hand,” he said. “Not being active and doing any exercise, they have grown weak.”

Lockdowns are frequent in Kashmir and have become a part of life, the restrictions have also become synonymous with repressive measures from the law enforcement agencies that have added to the complexity. Fatimah’s brother, Basit Khan, 8, refuses to wear a mask. “I am not even scared of policemen,” he laughs. “How can I be scared of Coronavirus?”

According to a 2015 study by Professor Wahida Khan, titled Child Safety, Welfare and Well-being, “it is a widely accepted fact that schooling is vital for children’s social and cognitive development. In the conflict situation of Kashmir, regular school attendance and formal education entail considerable risks for students.”

Ms. Khan noted that “children are involved more in indoor games and have lost all those fun filling opportunities. They are tenser and stressed and have lost their real childhood. Armed conflict in Kashmir has a high impact on the mental health of children”.

“Children are like plants”

In the recent past, Kashmir has been under several lockdowns because of civilian killings, encounters etcetera but after the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 for months. Shortly as it emerged out of it, the COVID-19 outbreak had prompted another lockdown.

As a natural outcome of the frequent lockdowns, the quality of education has deteriorated in Kashmir but its fallout has not been limited to just education. “It’s not only about the academics but also about the routine, their exposure and even their overall development,” said Zoya Mir, a Psychologist.

Frequent lockdowns have adversely impacted the mental and social development of children, who require greater degrees of freedom, outdoor activities, and socialising to grow. “A child is like a plant and is supposed to grow in a particular direction,” said Dr. Mir. “When you continuously try to bend it or change its direction then it automatically changes its direction and it doesn’t grow in a normal way and doesn’t have normal development.”

As lockdowns confine families together for longer periods, children are exposed to internal conflicts at a greater level. Dr. Mir said that when children witness their parents fight, they become prone to anxiety disorders.

Additionally, when children closely notice their elders discussing the flood of distressing news coming out of Kashmir, they develop fears that lead to an insecure attachment with their family members. “They witness more trauma, more fights, and more issues at home when they are supposed to have their own life, be in a group of their own age,” she said.

The lack of socialising in their early years makes it difficult for children to handle social situations later in their lives. “When they are caged in their houses, they start feeling lonely because their age demands that they play with friends or be in school with them. So, they don’t get the social development they need and that creates loneliness,’ said Dr. Mir. “They may have anxiety, may have trust issues, and even an insecure behavior.”

According to Dr. Mir, the continuous exposure to conflict numbs children emotionally and makes them “stop caring”. “Their mental, social and physical development gets affected because of the restrictions and conflict,” she said. “You cannot reason with children. It is affecting their mental well-being and it seems like the next pandemic would be mental health pandemic.”

The story originally appeared in our 13-19 July 2020 print edition.

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