Children are not the face of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has raged the world since December, 2019 but they risk being among its biggest victims.
While they have thankfully been largely spared from the direct health effects of COVID-19 at least to date the crisis is having a profound effect on their wellbeing according to the United Nations. These effects on the welfare of children and adolescents are vast and will not be equally distributed.
The expected effect is envisaged to be most damaging for children and adolescents in the poorest countries, and in the poorest neighborhoods, and for those in already vulnerable situations.
All over the world, the home represents a source of security and safety. But for some children and adolescents it cannot be the case because parents and care-givers subject them to all forms of violence. As the closure of schools and ban on church activities mean that children in these uncomfortable situations have no respite.
According to UNICEF Violence undermines children’s future potential; damages their physical, psychological and emotional well-being; and in many cases, ends their lives. In view of the lockdowns and restrictions of movement imposed by many governments across the world aimed at preventing COVID-19 spread. These all-important measures have put stress on parents and care givers alike. Evidence suggest that, increased stress levels among parents is often associated with physical abuse and neglect of children.
According to the Ghana Statistical Service, in 2017 about 2.4 million Ghanaians live below the poverty line. Poverty in itself already puts stress on people and the outbreak of this COVID-19 and its attendant impact on families has further aggravated the situation. Studies have shown that during the Ebola epidemic in 2014, parts of Sierra Leone, the teenage pregnancy rate increased by 65 percent according to a study by the United Nations Development Program. Also, emergencies such as COVID-19 pandemic have been linked to increased interpersonal violence, including incidence of violence against women and children. For example, when the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa, an “epidemic” of “rape, sexual assault and violence against women and girls” were reported across the affected countries according to Center for Global Development.
In the current era of COVID-19, as of mid-March 2020, there are already reports from Australia, Brazil, China and the United States indicating an increase in violence against women and children. In China’s Jianli County (central Hubei province), the police station reported receiving 162 reports of intimate partner violence (IPV) in February—which was three times the number reported in February 2019 according to World Health Organization’s report.
One of the major consequences of this pandemic according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is unintended pregnancies in view of the disruption of schools, routine health services and community-level centers etc. Unlike the developed countries where domestic and gender-based violence are easily reported and perpetrators brought to book, in Ghana, the violence is all around us but due to our cultural and structural arrangements the cases don’t get reported. The few reported cases suffer pre-judicial suffocation.
From where I sit, a passionate child protection and SRHR advocate, I anticipate high levels of domestic violence, gender-based violence and adolescent pregnancies particularly if nothing is done about it. Let us be reminded that adolescent pregnancies are the driving force of child marriage in Ghana and the consequences are not far-fetched.
In the light of the above, government through the Ministry of Health must prioritize Adolescent Reproductive needs (adolescent corners must be operational and equipped). Conscious commitment of resources to Department of Community and Social Welfare and Gender Department to embark on door- to- door and home visit to communities to provide education on child protection content at this critical time. The departments could effectively collaborate with National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) and Information Service Department, Civil Society Organizations such as Youth Harvest Foundation Ghana (YHFG) and other agencies providing education on COVID-19 at the communities to include child protection content.
Parents and care givers must also make conscious efforts at this time to respond to the emotional, physical and educational needs of their children. Every child needs love and high sense of protection at home. If parents and care givers fail at this, our collective future is being sacrificed.
Also, governments must ensure the protection of women and girls right from the beginning of the pandemic. However, a top down approach is necessary but not sufficient enough. Prevention and mitigation initiatives need to be integrated across sectors.
Similarly, Governments should identify organizations already focused on sexual and gender-based violence and give them the tools and resources to continue supporting women and girls during the pandemic.
Moreover, as hospitals and clinics deal with infected patients, the health sector should collaborate with gender-based violence organizations to deliver tailor made services and strengthen referral pathways in accordance with virus mitigation measures.
Lastly, the structures for reporting cases of violence are not effective enough and require strengthening. For example, sexual abuse cases reported to Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) do not live to see the light of the day. It is either duty bearers at the communities and politicians interfere to kill the case or the police shows disinterest in the case.
Currently, YHFG and other civil society organizations are implementing Safe and Protective Environment for Adolescent Development (SPREAD) project. The project is aimed at contributing to end child marriage, reduced teenage pregnancy and sexual and gender-based violence with funding from Global Affairs Canada through UNICEF. Many of such interventions are needed to augment government COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
In conclusion, I am optimistic about our ability to win over this COVID-19 pandemic, what is not certain is the impact of the pandemic on child protection.
The writer is Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Child Protection Advocate of Youth Harvest Foundation Ghana