Violence Against Children Exacerbated By COVID-19 Lockdowns
Smiling schoolgirls get their pictures taken near Jinja, Uganda.

While children seem to largely escape the worst COVID-19 infections, lockdowns to curb the pandemic have increased exposure to a different threat to children’s health – abuse and violence.

In Eastern Uganda, where so far no child has been infected with COVID-19, lockdowns have led to an uptick in reports of child abuse, exploitation, and violence.

In Mayuge district, 59 cases of defilement – or the sexual abuse of a child – have been reported since the national lockdown began two months ago, according to a qualitative study led by local non-profit Community Concerns Uganda. Some 58 cases have been recorded in Jinja district.

“Many girls have entered cross-generational relationships to access basic supplies like pads and soap, which has contributed to early pregnancies,” Brenda Doreen Nakirya, managing director of Community Concerns Uganda, told Health Policy Watch.

Because parents, working as casual labourers or owners of small businesses, have lost their source of income since lockdowns began, many families are unable to feed their children regularly.

And essential menstrual products for girls, like sanitary pads, are “no longer a priority” for cash-strapped families, said Nakirya.

Additionally, the closure of schools, which act as safe havens for many children has increased the risk of experiencing violence.

“Generally, the pandemic has worsened the living conditions of children, putting them at an increased to gender-based violence at a time when reporting channels and referral pathways are severely affected,” said Nakirya.

COVID-19 has greatly limited children’s access to basic needs including food and health care.”

Child Violence As A Global Problem
A young girl wearing a mask holds a laptop. Children are shifting to online learning as schools shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation in Eastern Uganda is just a snapshot of a pervasive global problem. Approximately 1 billion children every year are affected by physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological violence, and COVID-19 lockdowns could be exacerbating abuse, according to a new report published Thursday by several UN agencies, including UNICEF, and the End Violence Partnership.

A staggering 40,105 children were victims of homicide in 2017, according to the report. The homicide rate in boys was almost twice that of the rate in girls worldwide. Boys in the Americas faced the highest risk, with a staggering rate of 9.3 homicides per 100,000 people in boys under 17. Some 120 million girls experienced unwanted sexual contact before the age of 20.

COVID-19 Closures Lead to Increase In Violence Against Children

School closures have forced almost 1.5 billion children to stay at home, with many engaging in online learning for the first time.

Amidst the COVID-19 lockdowns, cases of domestic abuse, as children and spouses are forced to shelter-in-place with their abusers, have spiked. According to the Global Status Report on Preventing Violence Against Children 2020, one in four children under 5 lives with a mother who suffers from intimate partner violence. Nearly 75% of toddlers age 2-4 regularly suffer physical punishment and or psychological violence at the hands of caregivers and parents.

There has been a rise in cyberbullying and online exploitation of children, according to Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General. A third of students between the ages of 11 to 15 were bullied in the past month, according to the report. Cyberbullying affects 1 in 10 children worldwide.

A young boy plays a video game at the Binational Border Assistance Center on the border of Peru and Ecuador.

And even as cases of violence rise, children are separated from normal sources of emotional support including friends, extended family, and mental health professionals. An increase in calls to domestic violence helplines has been observed, alongside a decrease in the number of abuse cases referred to child protection services.

“Violence against children has always been pervasive, and now things could be getting much worse,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Lockdowns, school closures and movement restrictions have left far too many children stuck with their abusers, without the safe space that school would normally offer.

“It is urgent to scale up efforts to protect children during these times and beyond, including by designating social service workers as essential and strengthening child helplines.”

INSPIRE Framework Promotes Key Child Protection Strategies

Using the INSPIRE framework, which promotes seven key child protection strategies, countries can make progress against violence. However, the report, the first one to compare progress in 155 countries against the framework, found that countries are lagging behind in implementing all seven strategies, despite about 80% of countries having a national strategy to reduce violence against children. 

Among 155 countries, only about 20% of those national strategies were fully funded. Some 88% had laws protecting children against violence, but only 47% strongly enforced such laws.

Countries made the most progress in collecting data and school enrollment, with 54% of countries reporting that a sufficient amount of children in need were enrolled in school. Some 83% of countries reported having national data on violence against children.

However, only 21% used national data to set targets to prevent and respond to such violence. And only about a third of countries believed that victims of violence could adequately access support services, and some 26% of countries had programmes supporting parents and caregivers.

Even fewer countries reported enacting programmes to address norms and environments around child abuse. Some 21% of countries reported programmes to change harmful norms, while only 15% had programmes to provide safe physical community spaces for children.

Image Credits: UNICEF, Flickr: neiljs, UNICEF Ecuador.