COVID-19 puts children at risk of exploitation and violence, UNICEF warns

The United Nations body is urging governments to ensure the wellbeing of children as they try to contain the spread of the disease

STARK WARNING: Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection

UNICEF HAS issued a stark warning that hundreds of millions of children around the world are likely to face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing following actions to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Leading officials at the United Nations children’s agency say that children will face an increased risk of mistreatment, including gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers.

According to UNICEF, Quarantine efforts such as school closures and movement restrictions, while considered necessary, are disrupting children’s routines and support systems. They are also adding new stressors on caregivers who may have to forgo work.

A workshop teaching children how to correctly wash their hands to prevent the spread of Ebola in DR Congo. But say UNICEF, public health crises like this also increase the risk of child exploitation and violence (Pic: UNICEF/Mark Naftalin)

It says that control measures that do not account for the gender-specific needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls may also increase their risk of sexual exploitation, abuse and child marriage. 

Recent anecdotal evidence from China, for instance, points to a significant rise in cases of domestic violence against women and girls.

Increased rates of abuse

UNICEF also pointed to increased rates of abuse and exploitation of children have occurred during previous public health emergencies such as the spread of Ebola. 

School closures during the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, for example, contributed to spikes in child labour, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. 

In Sierra Leone, cases of teenage pregnancy more than doubled to 14,000 from before the outbreak.

UNICEF, together with its partners at the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, has released guidance  to support authorities and organizations involved in the response.

Protection risks for children mounting

Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection said: “In many ways, the disease is now reaching children and families far beyond those it directly infects. Schools are closing. Parents are struggling to care for their children and make ends meet. The protection risks for children are mounting.

“This guidance provides governments and protection authorities with an outline of practical measures that can be taken to keep children safe during these uncertain times.”

Concrete steps to ensure child protection

As part of the guidance, the Alliance is recommending that governments and protection authorities take concrete steps to ensure protection of children is integral to all COVID-19 prevention and control measures, including:

  • Train health, education and child services staff on COVID-19 related child protection risks, including on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse and how to safely report concerns;
  • Train first responders on how to manage disclosure of gender-based violence and collaborate with healthcare services to support GBV survivors;
  • Increase information sharing on referral and other support services available for children;
  • Engage children, particularly adolescents, in assessing how COVID-19 affects them differently to inform programming and advocacy;
  • Provide financial and material assistance to families whose income generating opportunities have been affected

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