Over 1.5 billion children have potentially been exposed to the risk of exposure to online abuse (cyberbullying, risky online behaviour and sexual exploitation) through online learning caused by the closure of schools due to Covid19 crisis.
This was revealed Wednesday by Stella Ayo-Odongo, the Coordinator African Partnership to End Violence Against Children, while speaking during the National Virtual Learning Event on Child Wellbeing organised by Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development.
Odongo tackled the ‘Violence against Children during and post COVID-19: Implications for Child Wellbeing’ and its vast impact on the economic, social and psychological wellbeing of global population.
While the world and key actors focus on instituting measures to control and deal with the pandemic, the world’s largest population, an estimated 56% of the population in the case of Uganda, bear the unintended impact of these control measures.
For some children this resulted in their exclusion because they lack access to internet services or the schools were not able to facilitate online learning, Odongo noted.
“During this period, there have been heightened reports of violence against children (VAC), increase in teenage pregnancies, child marriage, sexual violence (In Ethiopia, within the space of less than two months, more than 100 girls were reported to have been raped, some of them by close family members; in Uganda media reports indicated that up to 60 girls in Iganga had been impregnated during the lockdown; In Machacos County, Kenya more than 4,000 were reportedly impregnated within 4 months ); inability to access child protection services and the list goes on.”
She says the pandemic has increased the number of children dropping out of the education system: for the girl child, teenage pregnancies, child marriage will result into failure to continue with education.
It has caused lack of access to school as a safe space and no school-related support networks due to school closures.
“Schools provide safe havens for children, where they serve as the first point of call for reporting child marriages and sexual violence. Schools also serve as centers for girls to access sexual and reproductive health services, including information and sanitary materials. Many more also rely on school meals.”
As such, the closure of schools has disrupted all these protective mechanisms and services, further exposing children to multiple vulnerabilities.
There is heightened risk of online abuse: COVID-19 has not only severely affected health, education and other services in Africa, but it is also pushing millions into extreme poverty.
According to UNECA estimates, up to 29 million Africans are expected to be pushed below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 per day owing to the impact of COVID-19.
She said an estimated 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year.
Despite the gloomy situation, Odongo sees a glimmer of hope through social distancing for protection against abuse and harassment, government commitment towards stopping the spread of the pandemic, multi-stakeholder involvement and voluntary mobilization of resources and strengthening family as a result of lock down.
Speaking during the same forum, Birgithe Lund –Henriksen Chief, Child protection, UNICEF, Uganda Country Office, tackled strengthening systems for Child wellbeing during post COVID-19 Context in Uganda.
She said United Nations Children’s Fund is prioritising children but it’s not easy for government to protect special groups of people.
“We need to build on government systems that already exist. We can’t create new parallel structures but we need to address gaps within government systems. This will work if government takes the lead,” she noted.
According to Birgithe, addressing the workforce gap is critical to protecting children as is the critical role of social work officers at the village level, sub county level, parish level and district levels.
She stressed the importance of improving data management, calling upon the ministry of Gender to train and deploy social workers to ensure individual case management and care for children admitted quarantining centres as well as training health care staff.
“Some children have been left unattended when parents are taken to quarantine centres. There should be someone to look after them,” she noted.
Birgithe also hinted at mental health and psychosocial stress caused by the lockdown and a hostile environment in homes.
According to her, 60 percent of girls and 70 percent of boys are suffering abuse in form of corporal punishments.
She cited limited understanding on the onset, limited budget yet partners were expected to do a lot without resources and a lot of workload which made it difficult for social workers.
She advocated for continued advocacy work, testing social welfare workers, strengthening community-based workers, religious structures and civil society structures.
Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the Executive Director of Uwezo Uganda, in her presentation, said 90% of children in the world have had their education interrupted due to COVID, according to the ‘Save our Future White Paper on Education’ (ADB et all 2020).
“In absolute numbers, 90% = is approximately 1.7 billion learners,” she noted, adding that the closure means that vulnerable children are also missing on other vital services that school provides e.g. protection, nutrition and health.
In Uganda, the education of 15 million children has been disrupted since schools closed in March 2020.
It’s great that schools have reopened for candidate classes at all levels but majority of the learners remain out of school.
Globally, Covid-19 has hit an education system that was already struggling: more than half of 10 year olds had not learnt to read (ADB et all 2020).
She said the long-run learning impact of the COVID-19 shock will be massive Learning loss.
“Kaffenberg (2020) has estimated today’s Primary 3 learners to lose as much as 1.5 years’ worth of learning by the time they reach S3 here (Grade 10). The situation is similar in Uganda: Many children were not learning and will further fall off.”
This situation has worsened mental health in children due to isolation from friends and prolonged social distancing that cause negative effects on mental health.
She said violence against children has increased during school closures as well as school dropouts.
According to Goretti, predictive models suggest that school closure alone will only reduce the number of Covid-19 deaths by 2-4%.
She suggests simple assessments to establish each child’s level, and formalise remedial teaching as well as strengthening schools so that teachers are equipped to enable learning and well-being for all children.