Act now to protect children from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic

15Sep 2020
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Act now to protect children from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic

As with all global crises, children remain innocent in the midst of this pandemic. Whilst children have so far been largely spared from the direct health effects of COVID-19 pandemic, the scourge is having a profound effect on their lives in other ways.

This is a universal crisis but the harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally. The poorest and most vulnerable children will be hit the worst and for some children, the impact will be lifelong.

In response, the United Nations are calling for critical implementation of the UN Secretary General’s ‘Call to Action on a Ceasefire on Violence in the Home’ and enable a fully integrated COVID-19 response that caters to the protection needs of children.

Save the Children echoes this sentiment. They aim to raise awareness among the public, the government and other decision makers around the devastating impacts on children that the fall out of COVID-19 brings. In particular, the rising child abuse.

At this pinnacle moment in history, we have the chance to not only defeat this pandemic, but to also transform the way we nurture and invest in the young generations. But we have to act now.

A Social Worker, Hariri Katani, from Dar es Salaam City said there has been a rather lethargic approach to child abuse, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Katani spoke of a series of covert sexual abuse incidents against children after the closure of schools began on 17th March this year.  Extreme incidences of violence against women and children can happen in a matter of seconds, Ms Katani explains when recounting the horrific story of a primary schoolgirl who was abducted from her home by a stranger and raped.

“The child was at home alone during the schools’ closure. She was lured out of the home and taken by someone to an unknown place where she was raped and abandoned,” a tearful Ms Katani said.

Whilst the government continues their efforts to overcome the many forms of child abuse across the country, Ms Katani thinks that a mindset change is necessary to help deter perpetrators from abusing children. Otherwise, “transgenerational trauma will stay with children if serious punitive and deterrent measures are not taken as soon as possible.” The government must strive to continue improving their fight against child abuse wherever possible.

A member of the Committee of the National Plan of Action against Violence against Women and Children (NPA-VAWC), Judith Kimaro, says a number of physical violence and other forms of abuse against children including SGBV continue to rise.

It is very difficult to establish statistical data on the incidents of violence against children. Martha Kusaga, the Primary School Health Service Coordinator of the Kinondoni District in Dar es Salaam said. This is because most incidents happen behind closed doors and reporting of violence is low.

Despite absence of data Ms Kusaga believes that during the closure of schools throughout the pandemic, many children across Tanzania were most likely suffered from some form of violence.

Current situation in Tanzania

Despite existing legal and policy frameworks, children in Tanzania continue to experience high rates of sexual violence in their homes, schools and communities – and children continue to feel that not enough is being done to ensure they are safe from abuse.

Numbers are likely to be higher than those reported due to barriers in reporting that are embedded in discriminatory gender norms within the community. It is estimated that less than half of children who experience violence during childhood reported about it.

Unwanted sexual contact, including sexual activity and rape of children are the most common forms of childhood sexual violence reported in Tanzania.  These experiences most commonly occur in the home, at school or while going to and from school.

Usually children experience sexual violence from their peers, neighbors, extended family members or schoolteachers. The majority of perpetrators are male with older males typically in the case of girl victims, whereas perpetrators tend to be closer to the age of boy victims. 

The drivers of sexual violence against children are multifaceted and complex. They include household poverty, stress, limited supervision of children, lack of school/ madrass regulation, access to pornography, difficulties accessing sexual and reproductive health services and information, discriminatory gender norms and power dynamics, normalized violence, weak law enforcement and lack of child empowerment to speak out/ report perpetrators.

In the context of the pandemic these factors are compounded by the restriction of children’s movement, closure of schools/ homeschooling, economic struggles and other stresses of lockdown.

Poor response systems are another barrier to protecting children from abuse. Many authorities lack adequate training in sexual violence with corruption and a preference for informal mechanisms prevailing. Children are scared to report incidences for fear of damaging familial relationships.

During the Covid-19 pandemic Ms Kimaro says, a 30-member NPA-VAWC Municipal Committee were trained on how to provide psychosocial support to the community in general, and children in particular. In addition, the NPA-VAWC Committee have started hosting regular meetings to discuss the best ways for interventions to minimize incidents violence (including gender-based) against children.

“We allocated two caretakers, a social worker and a parachute worker to each administrative ward”.

“This way, it was easier for us to closely follow-up on any issues of violence and address challenges in our specific areas of coverage,” she added.

“Five committees were formed and tasked with the immediate response to and pursuit of illegal violence.” The aim is to catch out unscrupulous parents and caretakers who try to negotiate with the perpetrators to avoid the legal repercussions and punishment. This usually happens in cases where the persecutor is a member of their family.

“These cases involving family members are reported by Ward Social Workers who take it to the Ward Caretaker and the Municipal Committee, finally reaching the Special Committee who will take legal action where necessary,” she explained.

Ending child abuse

To end child, abuse a child-centered, integrated multidisciplinary and timely approach is needed across all levels of society. Governments can look to the support of NGOs like Save the Children for guidance and support.

In Tanzania Save the Children has supported the Ministry of Health in Zanzibar to provide services for SGBV survivors in One-Stop Centers across the islands. This support includes capacity building on how to communicate with children and provide basic counselling, as well as the importance of consent and confidentiality. Save the Children has built 3 One-Stop Centers in Shinyanga region and continue to support one One Stop Center in Dar es Salaam.

Save the Children Tanzania also cooperates with Police Gender and Children Desks in Mbozi responding to SGBV survivors; reporting SGBV concerns (including logistical support), as well as providing referrals and basic psychological support training.

All Save the Children’s programs strive to be gender-transformative meaning they aim to address the harmful societal and structural norms that devalue women and girls, increasing the risk of sexual violence. For example, an approach that meaningfully engages men and boys and addresses the intergenerational cycle of violence. This is essential if we want to make meaningful change.

Save the Children has a bespoke package of global solutions called ‘Parenting Without Violence’. Using these tried and tested approaches Save the Children works with parents, caregivers, children and communities to transform power dynamics, gender norms and practices that lead to violence in the home. Save the Children also works with governments to strengthen systems and mechanisms that protect children.

In many countries around the world, parents have reported that since participating in programmes based on the ‘Parenting without Violence’ approach they have seen a reduction in intimate partner violence in the home.

Call to action

Any local or national interventions designed to protect communities from the worst impacts of Covid-19 must focus on the protection of children - particularly girls -from any form of abuse combined with mental health and psychosocial support.

This is critical if we are to actualize the UN Secretary General’s ‘Call to Action on a Ceasefire on Violence in the Homes,’ and provide children with what they deserve. A safer world with integrated, effective prevention and response to their protection needs and concerns.

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