The world continues to experience a deadly pandemic and the wellbeing and safety of children is being threatened. The short, and long-term effects of the pandemic on children are disturbing. Increases in gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and the health risk both physical and mental on children and their caregivers has been a major concern. Moreover, the direct harm that children, specifically young girls are being exposed to places a disruption to the protection of children's rights in Africa.
With lockdown measures being implemented in most countries, families are being obligated to stay home. The financial strain added to families and the stress they face is causing a surge in domestic violence. Whether children are being abused or witnessing abuse of another family member, the chances of receiving support services during these times is slim. It is reported by UNFPA that 15 million cases of gender-based violence (GBV) are expected every three months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. It is also estimated that 13 million more child marriages and 2 million more cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) are expected to take place over the next decade if there are no concrete and sustainable actions taken during this pandemic such as strengthened legislation and programs for the protection of the girl child.
More vulnerable communities in Africa have faced the harshest consequences during this global crisis, particularly children in low income families. With more schools having to close, children are now missing the basic education that they need for their development, not to mention the number of children that do not have access to online schooling or internet. This in turn is said to lead to more children dropping out of school in general and increase the amount of teenage pregnancies. Additionally, children are more susceptible to poverty with the latest projections by UNICEF and partners indicating that 106 million children will live in poor households by the end of 2020. And with the economic adversity, children are more at risk to child labour. The well-being and safety of children are not only threatened but the long-term mental implications that children are facing can be detrimental.
Furthermore, health services are being flooded with patients leaving children’s health at risk. The United Nations report 80 million children in at least 68 countries may be at risk of diphtheria, measles and polio due to recent disruptions in supply chains and immunization services. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) is working on this matter, there are still several other health services that children need which are now being neglected. This is not only putting new born children at risk but increasing the number of young women not having access to sexual reproductive health services or basic care during pregnancy due to the overwhelming burden on services in hospitals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Child rights and protection measures need to be implemented during this time of crises more than ever before, especially for vulnerable young girls who are more vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault. Protection services and responses to abuse needs to be implemented. Additionally, providing information on how to report abuse while in a pandemic and accessibility to services is key to combatting this problem. As local communities are the first point of contact for survivors, there needs to be attainable communication tactics to help children report abuse including child helplines.
The different measures that Member States of the African Union are taking during this time to protect children rights is vital. The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) has recommended various measures to be taken by Member States of the African Union in responses to the global pandemic. These measures ensure that child rights and welfare are respected enabling children to gain physical and mental health.
With the guidance of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, there must be advances being made on children’s rights. Now is the time more than ever to ensure protection for the children of Africa when they are the most susceptible.