The current corona virus pandemic is manifesting profound effects on children in conflict areas, particularly adolescent girls who are at higher risk of violence and sexual health concerns. Children in conflict areas are now further caught in the pandemic, placing them at a double disadvantage, given that they’re likely finding themselves at increased risk of violence, abuse, child marriage and recruitment to armed groups.
In addition, a number of African countries affected by COVID-19 have recorded an increase in gender-based violence, reduced access to reproductive health and social welfare services, and a decrease in the quality of maternal health care all of which have in the past proven to be of greater concern for women and girls in conflict. These hindrances are in turn causing increased rates of early pregnancy and forced marriages.
A new survey issued by the International Rescue Committee 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, with 24% noting an increase in severity over just the past four weeks of July 2020 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.
According to the African Child Policy Forum it is estimated that one in every four children in Africa lives in a conflict zone, and one-fifth of the world’s children in conflict zones lives in Africa. Majority of the children are recruited into armed groups, while others suffer from sexual violence, and some die of hunger and conflict-related diseases. Not excluding the grave violations against children through abduction and direct attacks on schools. The African Union, in its Agenda 2063, is not only firmly committed to building an Africa that is fit for its children but equally to investing in childhoods that are fit for a peaceful, prosperous and fully integrated Africa.
Behind these figures are traumatized children who have lost hope for a future, and families and communities torn apart by violence and suffering. The only commonality children and communities have now is their shared hope for peace, a better life and a better future. We must rise to meet that expectation.
Government interventions must be made to make a change. Amongst them is the formation of community-based units that offer services such as counseling to children. The community is the first point of contact for such children thus the need to equip community with skills to handle some of the issues facing the children is paramount. Also children who have experienced conflict need to resolve psychological problems or it will have long-term repercussions on their lives.
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.
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 supports to caregivers to help them better manage stress; both economic and interpersonal without turning to violence or other negative coping mechanisms.
The collaboration between the African Union and the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) who serves as the leading UN advocate for the protection and well-being of children affected by armed conflict goes back to the very origins of the Children and Armed Conflict mandate; which was created following the Graça Machel study on the impact of conflict on children in 1996. This partnership was consolidated in 2013 with the signature of an agreement to strengthen protection mechanisms to ensure that child protection is a critical component of the peace and security agenda for the continent. More recently, the African Union, together with the European Union, co-sponsored the launch of the campaign ACT to Protect children affected by conflict in April 2019 in New York, marking the deeper engagement of the AU in the protection of children from armed conflict.
With one of the largest youth population in the world, the African continent is exposed to many of the collateral impacts of the COVID-19. While African governments have responded quickly to the pandemic, they now need to make sure this direction is aligned to their continental commitment and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child.