My name is Hani Mansourian and I’m the co-coordinator of the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, a network of over 100 organizations that work to protect children in the face of crises and conflict. For most of the past 20 years, I’ve been working on protection and well-being of children affected by adversity. A fun fact about me is that I enjoy farming and woodworking in my spare time. The first measure I would speak about is school closures. In almost every country, schools were closed.
In April, schools were closed in 190 countries, affecting a total of over 1.3 billion children as of July 2020, it is still unclear how many children will be able to go back to schools any time soon. Now, schools are not just the place to learn writing, math and science. It is also where we socialize and learn about life and community. For children who face adversity at home or in their communities, school is a safe haven. Where they can learn to trust and where they can receive services that they need for other children, schools are where they receive nutritious food and access to safe water and sanitation. Some also receive life saving health services through referrals from schools.
Not being in schools for prolonged periods can have serious and enormous impact on protection and well-being of children, extended closure of schools for many children will mean that they will never go back to schools as they will either be forced to marry or get pregnant, or they are forced into child labor, migration or other potentially exploitative or detrimental situations. Now, as we all know, schools are a key entry point for social service workers to access children and identify those at risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation or violence. Schools play a significant role in connecting children to protective services, and this vital entry point is no longer available to many children. So it is a double whammy.
As they say, school closures can lead to additional harm to children, while it has also cut children off from those who could provide them with vital services. This highlights the importance of finding alternative ways for child protection actors to access children who may be in dire need of support. There are several examples of how that may be possible, for example, strengthening hotlines or help lines, introducing new identification and referral points in non stigmatizing ways such as through pharmacies or grocery stores and incorporating social services into other vital services such as health. The second dilemma I will highlight that has been brought upon by strict lockdown measures is the stay at home policies.
In some countries, children were not even allowed to leave home for several months. This not only is impacting the ability of caregivers to provide for their children, it also has taken away another key protective layer from children, and that is the community. Communities have historically been at the forefront of protecting children against harm by playing different roles, both in the prevention of and in response to adversity. Now, this layer has also been activated in many societies. Lastly, I’ll come to the elephant in the room, and that is the fact that in many countries, especially in the earlier phases of the pandemic, social service work was not classified as an essential service in the backdrop of increased risk to children.
It seems absurd to think that social social workers and other social service providers would be would be forced to stay at home because they’re not necessarily. Child protection saves lives, and it should be treated as such for a child who faces physical or sexual abuse at home, having access to services is not a luxury, but a necessity. Social service, social welfare and social protection interventions in many instances are able to prevent ultimate death or serious injury if they can be deployed in time. But even in countries where social service work workers were able to operate, they continued facing multiple challenges at both personal and professional levels.
At personal level, many of them had children at home who are no longer going to school or daycare, and child care became a huge burden for them. Also, in the absence of adequate protective training and material, many of them were worried about getting infected and in turn infecting their children or their other family members on a professional level, their access is extremely limited. Many of them are not provided with the means to contact children and their families remotely. Also, safeguarding and privacy issues came in the way of remote operation. Training and upskilling has not been available to many of them who are left alone to figuring out innovative solutions to this complex situation.
All of this has left families, communities and children to deal with these very difficult circumstances alone. Social services are being denied to many vulnerable children and families exactly when they need it the most. It is our role to find a way around this by innovation and dedication. And I would say we definitely do not lack enough dedication, but we need to add innovation to it to be able to get around some of the restrictions that have been put in put in place. Now, let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting that government should not be putting strict measures to control the coronavirus.
What I’m suggesting, though, is that governments have a duty to also consider the negative impact of such strict measures on protection and well-being of children and balance health risks with other risks that children and families will face and are facing today. They also have a duty to ensure that social protection and social welfare services are fully functional and are being supported and resourced to be able to prevent and respond to all these potential additional negative impacts that the measures put in place to control COVID-19 is bringing upon children and families. Fortunately, evidence clearly tells us that on average, the coronavirus affects children less severely than it impacts adults.
And this should help policymakers to take measures to moderate some of the impact of the restrictions and especially school closures, I would emphasize, need to be moderated to alleviate the huge burden that this has put on children and families, as well as social service workers. Now, I would like to invite you to discuss what you envision as the impact of public health measures to limit the spread of coronavirus on child protection services in your particular context. Thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your session.