Since the declaration of the COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), there has been growing concern in the ECOWAS countries over its impact on the vulnerable populations, including women, children and the elderly, especially those with underlying illnesses. In this report, Justus Nduwugwe*, revisits the recent Joint Advisory issued by the ECOWAS Commission and the Regional Child Protection Working Group(RCPWG) and flags the salient points of the recommendations.
In all the 15 countries that make up ECOWAS region, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating on the economy and wellbeing of the citizens. There is palpable fear that the situation may worsen judging from the rising new infections recorded in the countries under review. That is why the ECOWAS Commission and its ally in this project, the Regional Child Protection Working Group (RCPWG) holds the view that “the impact of COVID-19 and the response measures of member states must take into account, as much as possible, the prevailing context of Child Rights in West Africa, including, multi-dimensional poverty, crisis, conflicts, and the situation of Children in emergencies (including other subsisting infectious diseases outbreaks such as Lassa Fever and Cholera etc.) amongst other factors.
Moreover, as the virus spreads to lower-income, fragile and/or conflict-affected countries such as those in the ECOWAS region, the ECOWAS Commission and its partners in the Regional Child Protection Working Group1 (RCPWG) are deeply concerned for the children of West Africa, where health, education and social protection systems are weak and severely impaired in times of stability, let alone in a crisis of such magnitude.
Indeed, the virus does not discriminate and impacts everyone across the globe, but there are far more devastating effects on vulnerable populations especially Women and Children. While so far, it seems COVID-19 affects Children to a lesser extent, Children with disabilities and chronic diseases, children living in overcrowded urban slums, as well as malnourished children and children living in refugee camps are exposed to a higher risk of contracting the virus.
It is important to note here that the Regional Child Protection Working Group (RCPWG) is a coalition of agencies with a common objective of strengthening Child Protection measures in the West Africa Region. The RCPWG comprises of 15 organizations as follows: ISS, Save the Children, World Vision International, Educo, MAEJT, ENDA, Terre des hommes Lausanne, Handicap International, ChildFund, Plan International, SOS Children’s Village, ILO, IOM, UNODC and UNICEF.
Why women and children should be focal points
The Commission and its partners reason that “beyond the menace of the disease itself, the rapidly changing context poses a great risk of violence against children. Measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, school closures and restrictions on movements disrupt Children’s routine, social care, and support; and social development, while also placing new stressors on parents and caregivers who may have to find new childcare options or forgo work. These contribute to an increased risk of violence at home. Moreover, stigma and discrimination may make children more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, violence and psychosocial distress. Children and families who are already vulnerable due to socioeconomic exclusion or those who live in overcrowded settings are particularly at risk”.
As ECOWAS member states governments ask millions of vulnerable people to stay home, and close schools and public spaces in order to contain the pandemic, children, including children without parental care, children on the street, children on the move and migrant children, may face increased risks of psychological distress, violence, and social exclusion. The measures taken by our member states including school closures are also likely to increase the burden of care for girls and young women, who may have to take increased care of their homes and siblings.
More importantly, the young age structure of the West African population; as almost half of West Africans are 15 years old and younger, makes it imperative that all COVID-19 responses have a special focus on Children, in particular those in vulnerable situations, so as to mitigate the risks of the virus infection and its secondary impacts.
The ECOWAS Child Policy and Strategic Plan of Action 2019-2030
The ECOWAS Child Policy and Strategic Plan of Action 2019 -2030 updates the first Child Policy and its’ Strategic Plan of Action. It provides a comprehensive, holistic and gender based approach to the protection and promotion of the Rights of Children in the ECOWAS region; addressing the rights of the Child to survival, development, protection, and participation.
The ECOWAS Child Policy and the ECOWAS Child Protection Systems Strengthening Strategic Framework were approved by the Member States in 2017. The Strategic Framework outlines 3 key objectives that are of strategic relevance in the management of Child Protection related COVID-19 concerns:
- To strengthen and adapt National Child Protection Systems to prevent and respond to Violence, Abuse, Exploitation and Neglect against children, especially the most vulnerable.
- To strengthen political commitment, accountability and national capacity to legislate, plan and budget for scaling up Child Protection interventions, particularly across the 5 priority areas
- To enhance ECOWAS accountability in monitoring, implementation and reporting on the Goals and objectives of the Strategic Framework for Strengthening National Child Protection Systems to prevent and respond to Violence, Abuse and Exploitation against Children in West Africa.
The Salient points of the recommendations
In the report, jointly signed by the Commissioner, Social Affairs and Gender, ECOWAS Commission, Dr. Siga Fatima Jagne and Secretary, RCPWG, Aimie Bada, the partners posit that this Advisory is focused on the impact of the pandemic on the Rights of Children and proposes to member states, immediate and medium to long term measures meant not only to address the direct impacts of the current pandemic on Children (including mortality and morbidity) but the impact of actions which are both extraordinary and necessary being taken by member states to curb the spread of the pandemic.
“In line with key ECOWAS Child Rights Instruments, we advise that member states urgently implement the following recommendations as immediate, short and long term actions to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on Children:
- Inform and prepare Children and Families of the COVID-19 Pandemic and measures being undertaken to contain it, to reduce their stress and anxiety. This should include Child-friendly information on how to recognise the disease and measures for children to protect themselves. These Child-friendly materials may be distributed via TV, Radio, and Social Media channels and through School teaching content (in cases where schools are still open).
- Promote meaningful participation of girls and boys in decision-making processes when appropriate and possible, in addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic at Community and National levels. This is essential to effectively respond to the crisis. When children are informed correctly, they can be more resilient and be agents of positive change to influence their peers and others, even their parents.
- Include the Core Child Rights and Protection Professional Services in the COVID-19 Response at Strategic, Operational and Tactical levels by ensuring representation from the Ministry responsible for the Rights of the Child and integrating Professional Advisors from the Social Workforce in the National Response Architecture along with Health, Economic, Security and other actors.
- Ensure access to Social Protection measures for the most vulnerable children by providing support to their Parents and Caregivers. Provide the most vulnerable families with free access to Healthcare, urgently needed food, hygiene, shelter where possible for those living in the streets, sanitation items including sanitary pads and Cash Assistance support to overcome the immediate and long term impact of the crisis. These measures should be integrated into the Government’s response mechanisms and rolled out from the onset of the crisis. Plans should particularly target families depending on daily income, working in the informal sector or with lack of income especially in remote areas and those living in humanitarian settings.
- Children benefiting from School Lunch programmes and other School-based Social Protection measures should continue receiving these benefits even in out-of-school settings. This may include delivery of School Lunches and Meals to the homes or designated Centres for the most vulnerable families.
- The strengthening of Social Protection measures will require a consideration of both formal and informal Safety Nets, bringing in both contributory and noncontributory forms of Social Insurance as a means of reaching the most vulnerable. In the targeting of these Social Protection measures, the following strategies might be helpful:
– Use of Registers indicating where School Feeding programs are being implemented in identifying vulnerable communities and families;
– As a further step, conducting carefully controlled ‘Enumeration Exercises’ of initially indicated vulnerable communities in ascertaining vulnerable households to qualify for Cash Transfers and application of other Safety Nets;
– Identification of primary markets serving such vulnerable communities and the application of Strategic Reserves (especially Food and Medicines) to these markets etc. These could include the establishment of Government controlled Shops or release of grains and other items by appropriate means to sellers in these areas (with due attention paid to price controls and the possibility of panic buying and hoarding);
- Protect and care for children living on the Streets, without parental care, or who have been separated from or lost Parents/Carers due to the disease. Government’s response should include alternative care provisions for Street Children and those who have been separated and/or lost their Parents/Carers as a result of the virus, as well as a mechanism to monitor situations of child-headed families. Kinship, foster care, Family-like Care or temporary shelter care should be preferred options to institutional care. There should also be support for communication between separated children and their Parents/Caregivers. To achieve this, the support of local and international Volunteer Organizations including key Non-State Actors might have to be solicited e.g. the Red Cross, Organized Religious Groups, Community Based Organizations, Artisan Guilds and Informal Sector Associations (especially those with existing institutional and physical infrastructure) etc.
- Provide mental health and psychosocial support to assist Children and Parents/Caregivers. This may include the provision of free Hotlines, Helpdesks, Online Programmes and Counselling options or Community Outreach programmes, when possible.
- Ensure access to Online/Tele education for all by using Child-friendly distant education methods such as TV, Radio or Online Learning. Schools should continue to provide Life Skills education to reduce the risk of stigmatisation and exclusion of Groups affected by the virus, as well as to help Children recognize risks and mitigate them as a part of the Curriculum delivered online.
- Train Health, Education, Social workers and Child Services staff on COVID-19 related Child Protection risks, including on the prevention of Child Labour, Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and how to safely report concerns; consider Social Service workers, whether paid or unpaid, professional or volunteer, as essential and provide them with Personal Protective Equipment so that Care and Protection services for Children can be supported in communities.
- Ensure continued functioning of the Child-friendly reporting mechanisms such as Child Helpline and Hotlines to enable child friendly reporting, counselling and response.
- Strengthen the digital capacity of Regional, National and Sub-National Children and Youth-led organisations to engage safely, effectively and in meaningful ways that enable young people (Girls and Boys) to play an effective role in the prevention and response. These include translating vital resources into local languages, using digital technologies to combat misinformation in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Integrate protection of all children in disease control measures in alignment with the guidance of protection of children during the COVID-19 pandemic developed by the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian emergencies and other relevant texts.
- Ensure child protection is included in country-level humanitarian responses, particularly for fragile contexts and populations (including Refugees and IDPs). This should ensure access to comprehensive Child Protection Case Management systems, monitoring and reporting. Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS, and investment in local systems and structures to prevent and mitigate Child Protection risks. This includes ensuring that Children whose parents test positive for Coronavirus receive appropriate treatment so that they are not placed in the same conditions, especially in quarantine conditions as adults.
- Transparent information sharing: Member states should provide COVID-19 related data and information in a timely manner, so that its impact on the general population and especially the children and other vulnerable groups can be regularly monitored and specific needs of children can be addressed.
- Disaggregate COVID-19 statistics and reporting by age and gender: Members states should ensure that the prevalence and impact of COVID-19 on children is regularly monitored, reported and specific interventions implemented to address the specific needs and situation of children.
In addition to the above recommendations, the partners emphasise that it is imperative for member states to promote and adopt a zero tolerance approach to any form of discrimination or stigmatization on the grounds of gender, age, disability, ethnicity and migratory status and national origin of COVID patients.
While commending ECOWAS member states, other stakeholders and citizens for the measures so far taken to halt this pandemic, they however advocate a “whole of society’ approach to ending the COVID-19 crisis and to protecting the rights of the children now and post COVID-19, thereby securing the future of the region as a people.
*Justus Nduwugwe is the Editor of facts and figures magazine/factsandfigures.ng