As coronavirus continues to spread, I am concerned about the current & potential impact on children and families, especially the most vulnerable. COVID-19 has had far reaching implications for our families, friends and colleagues. It has impacted on our work and has affected the achievement of the vision of a world without violence against children.
As the virus continues to spread across the world, we are all faced with multiple new stresses, including physical and psychological health risks, school and business closures, family confinement, isolation and economic vulnerability. Through all of that, children are particularly vulnerable.
For example, high-stress home environments will increase the likelihood of domestic violence and abuse, that children either experience or observe. In addition, over time, economic vulnerability may lead to increases in child labour, child marriage, child trafficking and many other child protection issues.
The efforts to contain the coronavirus are vital to the health of Nigeria’s population, but they are also exposing children to increased risk of violence – including maltreatment, gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.
We all have to commit to ending violence against children, by coming together in solidarity to share our deep concern, call for action and pledge our support to protect children from violence and reduce the impact of COVID-19 on children in Nigeria.
The lockdown and school closures have impacted millions of children. Movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress and anxiety are increasing the likelihood that children experience and observe physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home – particularly those children already living in violent or dysfunctional family situations.
And while online communities have become central to maintain many children’s learning, support and play, it is also increasing their exposure to cyber bullying, risky online behavior and sexual exploitation.
The situation is aggravated by children’s lack of access to school friends, teachers, social workers and the safe space and services that schools provide. The most vulnerable children – including children who are internally displaced, deprived of liberty, living without parental care, living on the street and in urban slums, with disabilities, and living in conflict-affected areas – are a particular concern.
We must act now. Together, we must call on the government, the community and leaders in every sector to urgently respond with a united effort to protect children from the heightened risk of violence, exploitation and abuse as part of the broader response to COVID-19.
Governments have a central role to play. They must ensure that COVID-19 prevention and response plans integrate age appropriate and gender sensitive measures to protect all children from violence, neglect and abuse. Child protection services and workers must be designated as essential and resourced accordingly.
Working with and supporting governments, our collective response must include: maintaining essential health and social welfare services, including mental health and psychosocial support; providing child protection case management and emergency alternative care arrangements; ensuring social protection for the most vulnerable children and households; continuing care and protection for children in institutions; and communicating with and engaging parents, caregivers and children themselves with evidence-based information and advice. National helplines, school counsellors and other child-friendly reporting mechanisms enable children in distress to reach out for help and must be adapted to the challenges of COVID-19.
Given the heightened risks of online harms, technology companies and telecoms providers must do everything they can to keep children safe online. This includes providing access to cost-free child helplines, age-appropriate services and safe e-education platforms – and using their platforms to share child online safety advice. They must also do more to detect and stop harmful activity against children online, including grooming and the creation and distribution of child sexual abuse images and videos.
As we continue to navigate this rapidly evolving situation, it is essential to stay informed on the latest news, updates and resources around the virus and its effect on children.
WHO Joint Leaders Statement
Augusta Yaakugh is an Abuja based legal practitioner and rights activist.