CHILDREN’S RIGHTS MATTER TOO IN THE COVID- 19 PANDEMIC RESPONSE

A health worker teaches children how to wash their hands during a door-to-door testing in an attempt to contain the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Umlazi township near Durban, South Africa, April 4, 2020. (Reuters)

Nicea Gumbo-Chinganga

With the Whole World, grieving due to the devastating effects of the COVID-19, now of all time, the plight of children must be prioritised. At global level, COVID -19 has been declared a global health crisis which has quickly turned into a global social and economic crisis.

Our country, Zimbabwe has not been spared too. In response to the threatening pandemic, the President declared a 21- day lock down as a measure to flatten the curve of the pandemic.  Since then a series of strategies and policy pronouncements have been put in place by the Government to try to mitigate the economic and social impact of COVID-19. The fact that the Government in its 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) has already singled out children, women, those with disabilities as the most vulnerable groups in need of urgent assistance is commendable indeed. Of note are the pronouncements with regards the provision of cash transfers to vulnerable households What is important now is to monitor how these measures will be implemented to address the specific needs of children in the midst of the pandemic.

CHILDREN’S RIGHTS IN THE ERA OF COVID-19  

WHY CHILDREN

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC)- are main frameworks guaranteeing the rights of children to basic health, protection, education, water, shelter amongst a wide range of other rights. Given the inalienability and inter dependence of human rights (including child rights), it then goes without saying that in both development and humanitarian situation, ALL the rights of children matter. The four basic principles- best interest of the child, survival and development, right to be heard and non- discrimination underpins child rights, hence they must be strictly adhered to in crisis situations. The need to ensure that human rights (including child rights) are respected in Government responses/ measures to tackle the public health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated. Human rights and the principles of good governance obligates the Government as the main duty bearer to be accountable for delivery of children’s rights by putting in place realistic and sustainable mechanisms that will result in children enjoying their rights in full. In the midst of crisis situations, usually the needs of children are often overlooked.  

The rights of children are at risk of being violated in humanitarian or emergency situation due to a number of factors ranging from lack of prioritisation and in attention to children’s human rights, breakdown of  family and community structures, anxiety due loss of house hold incomes and other factors. This calls for a holistic response and urgent action to reduce the likely impact of COVID-19 on children, ensure no discrimination and a respect for children’s well- being.

The impact of COVID- 19 on children in Zimbabwe

At the heat of crisis situations, such as COVID-19, all children regardless of age, race, colour, family status are potentially at risk of being infected by the virus or affected in one way or another. Child rights violations of varying magnitudes are likely to occur that might affect children’s well-being and dignity. The very fact that children are not a homogenous group,  calls for a deeper case by case analysis of the likely impact of COVID-19 on children in their varying categories;- Orphans and vulnerable children, children with disabilities- different and of varying magnitude), children from economically disadvantaged families, children living on the streets, child headed families, children living in institutions, children living with HIV and other diseases such as cancer face different levels of vulnerabilities. The specific needs of these children will need to be looked closely that would aid the Government and other stakeholders to response effectively and in sustainable ways. Some of the likely impact of this pandemic are highlighted below.

The plight of children in hard to reach communities- both rural and urban as they are usually a neglected group, access to information on COVID-19, health services and other social protection nets remain a major challenge. Girls in particular face many challenges as a result of societal obligations and negative social norms. Girls are exposed to increasing protection risks such as child marriages, sexual exploitation and abuse. Where movement of people is restricted and confined to their places of residence, exposure of children to abuse and harm becomes high. Child abuse in all its forms- sexual, physical, emotional, neglect and sexual exploitation becomes a cause for concern. Gender based violence is likely to take a toll as the families are worried about loss of employment, money, erosion of their income and livelihoods as a result of the lockdown. Stress levels are likely to be high as parents and guardians get overwhelmed by the fear of the pandemic and under such situations violence in families is likely to be on the increase.  

It is normal that children might be anxious about so many things- how do they foresee the future of their education during 2020 and how do they foresee the situation in the next months?. Some witnessed abrupt school closures, some being unable to cross boarders to visit their families and loved ones due to travel bans- with borders sealed and lockdowns implemented In worse situations, some children might witness the death of a loved one, however due to COVID-19 restrictions, they might not be able to participate in funeral rites as part and parcel of grieving and finding closure  All these situations might result in a lot of anxiety and stress to children. How children cope with stress and depression during this period is a cause for concern. Crisis situations affect children differently and some might be in need of psycho social support and how to build their resilience to shocks.

Children’s education was interrupted, although this was a vis majeure-no one had control over such a pandemic. What is important now is for the Government to design and implement disaster/ emergency response plans that would address the educational needs of children in the likelihood of any such or other pandemic in future. Some private and well-resourced schools continued to provide online learning to their learners through ‘google class’ as a measure to ensure uninterrupted learning. The Government’s capacity to introduce this is questionable given its continued outcry over lack of resources. The Government is however urged to prioritise online learning and extend its reach to hard to reach rural communities since we are now living in a technologically geared global village.         

In addition, children requiring medical attention might fail to access health services due to an already overwhelmed health system, children on ART might face challenges in accessing their medication, the visually impaired might be exposed to the virus through touching contaminated surfaces, children living on the streets struggling to access food and water, etc.  How is the Government as the main duty bearer prepared to ensure the safety and dignity of children during this era?. We need to ensure the protection of children from all discrimination and potential risks and harm.

Although the Government in its 2020 HRP has put in place measures and mechanisms to ensure the safety and protection of children, there is need to urgently ensure the implementation of those safeguards now that COVID-19 has hit hard unexpectedly. The Government has a duty to address the specific needs of the various categories of children as highlighted above. Adequate safety measures such as the strengthening of the community child protection systems and mechanisms already in place such as the community child care workers and the referral pathway- health, police, social welfare and the courts to ensure the urgent response to child protection cases.

At community level- (parents, guardians, care givers, neighbours and children themselves are critical stakeholders that should be engaged and implored to play an active role in ensuring the protection of children. The whole community should be sensitised and made aware of the protection risks to children and how they can take a leading role in ensuring the safety of children through reporting any cases or suspected cases of abuse to the relevant authorities. The voices of children as the most vulnerable must be heard, their concerns, fears, desires and aspirations captured and acted upon by the government and other concerned stakeholders. It is imperative that the Government, CSOs, partners and communities at large consult with children during the full cycle of the response as this would ensure the safety and restore dignity for children.

Recommendations/ key asks to Government  

  • It is high time the Government speed up the food distribution and cash transfers to ensure that vulnerable households are able to feed their children.
  • Adequate provision of basic needs to vulnerable households such as food, health care, clean water, sanitation services, particularly to child headed families, orphans and vulnerable children, children living on and off the streets, children in institutions, children with disabilities and children living with HIV and AIDS    
  • Setting up child friendly spaces in isolation centres to cater for children and provision of psycho- social support to children and their families
  • Important child friendly messages about COVID-19 translated in all local languages -such as the best ways to prevent it, what the symptoms are, and what you should do if you think you are sick must be communicated to all (including children)
  • Public Investment in children- The Government is encouraged to invest more in children- adequate funding/ budget allocation to education, health and social protection in both development and humanitarian context.  
  • Increase community awareness and sensitization of parents, guardians, care givers on the need to ensure support, care, protection and safety of children
  • Referral pathways followed and utilized to the fullest to ensure that children’s protection and health needs are met during this terrible time
  • The Government to fully structure and resource the disaster risk reduction plan to respond to any emergencies
  • Ministry of Home Affairs to ensure that perpetrators of crimes and violence against   children are brought to book.
  • Radio stations, including community and local radio stations to be encouraged to develop local content appropriate for communities

Last but not least, given the multi- faceted nature of the crisis, a multi sectoral approach (close collaboration between sectors/ clusters) to the response is urgently needed to address the myriad of challenges children are facing or likely to face due to the pandemic.

  • An urgent call for financial support from donors, UN, INGOs, private sector and other well-wishers to respond through setting up of an emergency fund to cater for the most vulnerable- children. This is a challenge the Government cannot hold entirely alone. A real collaborative approach to this crisis is needed.

My closing remarks; –   

Acting now will help us fight the virus. Only collective and immediate action will give us a chance of winning the battle.

The fight against COVID- 19 is everyone’s collective responsibility. We must all strive to ensure the impact of Covid-19 on children and communities is reduced.

Nicea Gumbo-Chinganga

About the author

Nicea Gumbo- Chinganga is a Child Rights Advocate, an expert in children’s rights and a serious defender of human rights for all, democracy & good governance.

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and contributors, and do not necessarily reflect those of RNCYPT, board of trustees, or the organization to which the authors are affiliated.

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