NEW YORK, United States of America, July 22, 2020/ — A new survey issued by the International Rescue Committee finds child protection concerns have increased among 55% of respondents, with 24% noting an increase in severity over just the past four weeks due to COVID-19; nearly 40% of respondents have seen an increase in unaccompanied and separated children, with the highest number of reports in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; physical and emotional abuse, child neglect, and child labor were cited by respondents as top concerns.
A new survey issued by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to staff working on the front lines of child protection services within 17 countries impacted by conflict or crisis finds that child protection concerns have increased among 55% of respondents. An additional 24% of respondents said that the severity of the violence children are facing has increased. The survey was issued during the month of June, over a four-week period, with a focus on capturing the impact of COVID-19 on children.
Nearly 40% of respondents have seen an increase in unaccompanied and separated children, with most cases being reported in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unaccompanied and separated children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, as they lack the protection and support of parents and caregivers or other trusted adults. Across 17 countries surveyed, physical and emotional abuse, child neglect, and child labor were cited most often as top concerns.
The costs of violence are profound. While individual survivors bear the brunt and deserve a comprehensive response, global modeling suggests that approximately $8 trillion is lost annually in economic potential and output due to violence in the home (1). One billion children currently face abuse (2), and with COVID-19, up to 85 million more girls and boys could be impacted. For example, in Bangladesh, beating by parents or guardians has increased by 42% since the onset of COVID-19 (3) and in Uganda, the country’s Child Helpline dealt with 881 cases since the lockdown began in late March (the average is 248). (4)
Globally, an estimated 152 million children were already engaged in child labor before COVID-19 struck, with 73 million engaged in very hazardous work (5). According to the IRC’s survey, child labor, alongside physical abuse, is cited as the highest protection concern across all countries for adolescents 12-17 years old. In Lebanon, where COVID-19 has exacerbated an economic crisis, the IRC is seeing increases in the number of children on the street as well as those engaged in child labor, with 50 new cases registered by the IRC alone during a two-month period.
The COVID-19 crisis is driving vulnerabilities for all children, but boys and girls are often experiencing different impacts. For instance, COVID-19 is disrupting planned efforts to end child marriage due to the wide-reaching economic consequences of the pandemic. An additional 13 million child marriages are expected to occur over the next ten years, which without COVID-19, would not have otherwise taken place (6). The second most common form of gender-based violence in Lebanon for the first quarter of 2020 (after domestic violence) was the forced and early marriage of girls, an effect of COVID-19 compounding an already dire economic situation.
In addition to the economic consequences of COVID-19 leading to increased tension and stress within households, children have lost one of their most important lifelines to reporting abuse with the closing of schools. More than 90% of children globally are out of school (7). Prior to COVID-19, more than 62 million children were out of school in countries affected by war or displacement. Within these settings more than half of all school-aged children with disabilities do not go to school. In addition to falling behind in their learning, children within these settings face an increased risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse, without access to their main avenue for reporting the abuse they may be suffering.
Despite knowing that crises lead to increased rates of abuse and child protection concerns, in the May update of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan, only 50% of country plans mentioned child protection needs. And while some governments have deemed child protection services as essential, this has yet to translate into the level of funding needed to deliver child protection programs during an emergency. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Financial Tracking Services, only $6.6 million of the profoundly low $32 million request has been met as of early July, resulting in an inability to effectively reach children in need (8).
“COVID-19 has upended people’s lives around the globe. Children may not have the loudest voices in the room, but their world has been turned completely upside down since the start of the pandemic,” said Annalisa Brusati, senior technical advisor for child protection at the International Rescue Committee. “From being taken out of school–in some cases, we fear, never to return again–to facing increased stress within the home to experiencing forms of exploitation, children remain incredibly vulnerable to the shadow pandemic of violence brought on by COVID-19.”
“Protection services, including emergency child protection case management, are essential and must continue so that the most vulnerable children continue to receive support. This should be coupled with more targeted support to caregivers to help them better manage stress–both economic and interpersonal–without turning to violence or other negative coping mechanisms.”
Despite these challenges, there are programs that can reduce risks for children even during the pandemic. The IRC’s Families Make the Difference (FMD) program focuses on caregivers and their needs, helping participants build necessary skills in supporting their children in a positive, non-violent way. The program has been shown to reduce physical and verbal abuse in the home by up to 56%.
In countries where it is still possible to host in-person meetings, the IRC has continued FMD programs by reducing group sizes to allow for proper social distancing, incorporating hand washing stations, and including information on COVID-19 into sessions. In other countries where movement is more limited such as Tanzania, the IRC has developed a network of community focal points who can still run sessions even if IRC staff cannot access the areas. In countries such as Jordan, the IRC has adapted its programming to be delivered via phone, WhatsApp, personalized home visits, and radio, and is distributing psychosocial support kits for parents to use both for themselves and with their children. The kits include games and activities for families to enjoy alongside reminders of relaxation exercises that can reduce stress.