How a Rights-Based Approach Protects Children During COVID-19

By Joanne Lu

Child wearing mask

Photo credit: ChildFund International.

Children may be at lower risk of death or severe illness from COVID-19. Nevertheless, the pandemic is threatening to reverse decades of progress made in protecting their rights globally. Because of the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic, billions of children are now at high risk of being forced into the labor market, as well as experiencing sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy, early marriage, and domestic violence, and falling behind or dropping out of school.

Last year, the world celebrated 30 years since the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child – “the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history,” according to the UN. The treaty, which emphasized children’s rights to survival, development to their full potential, and protection against abuse, neglect and exploitation, paved the way for children to be recognized as “human beings with a distinct set of rights, instead of as passive objects of care and charity.” Although the U.S. has never ratified the treaty – and, in fact, is the only country not to do so – the UN says that the “unprecedented acceptance of the Convention clearly shows a wide global commitment to advancing children’s rights.”

That global commitment is also reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), particularly SDG 16 Target 2, which aims to “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children” by 2030. SDG 8 Target 7 also set a goal to end child labor “in all its forms” by 2025.

Over the last two decades, child labor worldwide has dropped by nearly 40 percent, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO). Instead of working, tens of millions of children are in school, building better futures for themselves and their communities. And just last month, “the world reached an important milestone…in the fight to end child labor,” as Human Rights Watch put it, when all 187 member countries of the ILO committed to eliminate hazardous work that endangers children by ratifying ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.

Still, even before the pandemic, the ILO estimates 152 million children were engaged in child labor, and according to UNICEF, up to one billion children were subjected to physical, sexual or emotional violence or neglect in the past year. Then, COVID-19 hit, causing the worst global recession in decades and shuttering classrooms for 91 percent of the world’s students.

In times of economic hardship and insecurity – like the widespread job losses brought on by the pandemic, as well as parental illness and death – rates of child labor, trafficking and child marriage are likely to increase. According to Human Rights Watch, children who are out of school are also “far more likely to join the workforce, and the longer they stay out of school, the less likely they are to return.”

In this digital age, many schools have been able to switch to online and home learning, but it has been far from the perfect solution. According to a new report by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), when schools closed because of the pandemic, remote learning wasn’t an option for at least 463 million children, because they didn’t have access to the necessary technology and tools. But the report notes that the situation may have been even worse, because even with access, many children may not be able to learn at home because of competing factors, like chores, being forced to work, a poor environment for learning and a lack of support in navigating online or broadcast schooling.

Photo courtesy of UNICEF.

Photo courtesy of UNICEF.

In July, World Vision published a report, which found that due to “plummeting” household incomes and other “COVID-19 aftershocks,” 8 million children have been pushed into child labor and begging. The report includes a call to action to policymakers and other actors to scale up child-sensitive social protection programs, such as food, cash and voucher assistance, to help families meet immediate food, nutrition and income needs, and thereby reducing children’s exposure to violence, exploitation, begging, early marriage, forced labor and the likelihood that they will drop out of school. World Vision has also rolled out emergency cash programming to reach more than 4.4 people, including 2.2 million children, in more than 35 countries.

In addition to financial assistance, Human Rights Watch says that in order to prevent child labor, it’s also important to support decent employment for adults, ensure free primary and secondary education for children, and find innovative ways, including remote reporting, to monitor child labor.

Times of financial crisis also tend to increase rates of early marriage, as marrying off a daughter means one less mouth to feed, a way to repay debts or, in communities where a groom pays a “bride price” to a girl’s family, a source of income. In communities where a bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, a young, uneducated bride is usually much cheaper. In an effort to prevent child marriages during this crisis, Girl Rising’s partners in Kenya have created networks with community leaders who are keeping tabs on girls within their communities to ensure that the girls are not being married off and can return to schools when they reopen.

Photo courtesy of UNICEF.

Photo courtesy of UNICEF.

The UN has also reported that amid the stress, isolation and confinement of the pandemic, there’s been a global surge in domestic violence, with calls to helplines doubling and tripling in some countries. Combined with financial insecurity, Covenant House International says this trend means they’re expecting an uptick in youth homelessness. The organization, which offers housing and support for homeless, runaway and trafficked youth, has stepped up its services to make sure that vulnerable youth have a safe place to stay, especially because kids facing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked.

But the pandemic has also changed the way that kids are being trafficked and exploited. Because kids are spending more time online for school and other activities while they’re home, criminal groups dedicated to sexual exploitation have intensified their use of online communication and exploitation. The European Commission reports that demand for child pornography has increased by up to 30 percent in some EU countries during lockdown. According to ChildFund International, exploiters are luring children to engage in online sexual exploitation and abuse by saying it’s a way for them to help support their family financially. But in many cases, victims’ own caregivers are the ones facilitating the exploitation because of financial insecurity. ChildFund International has been working with policymakers on this problem for years, but to combat the recent wave, the organization is reaching out directly to parents through webinars and celebrity-laden social media campaigns to teach them how to protect their children online.

But for millions of children living in refugee or internally displaced persons camps, or detained in the justice system, immigration detention or other institutions, their vulnerabilities, even to COVID-19 itself and other diseases, are heightened. During this time, the work of Kids In Need of Defense has not slowed, as they continue to advocate for the protection of unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children and provide pro bono legal representation for them.

In many ways, children are the most vulnerable amid this pandemic and its socio-economic fallout. But the solutions don’t have to be complicated, so long as we regard children as whole human beings with all the rights that entails. It’s more important now than ever that the international community continues to monitor issues like child labor, trafficking, early marriage and sexual exploitation and abuse. Additionally, if we provide children and their families with the financial support they need to get through this crisis, as well as safe, innovative ways to stay in school, kids may have the chance to show us they’re even more resilient than we know.

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The following GlobalWA members are working to uphold and defend the rights of children globally.

ChildFund International
Worldwide, 570 million children live in extreme poverty, vulnerable to many factors that threaten their well-being. Children need protection, support and care at each stage of childhood to stay safe, healthy, learning and on track to achieve their potential. ChildFund works with local partner organizations, governments, corporations and individuals to help create the safe environments children need to thrive. As more children are spending unsupervised time online for remote learning and social connection, ChildFund is increasingly focused on prevention and responses to online sexual exploitation and abuse of children. The organization has been training parents on how to protect their children from online predators, as well as working with technology companies, governments, civil society, and the media.

Covenant House International
Covenant House has transformed the lives of more than a million homeless, runaway, and trafficked young people in 31 cities across six countries: the U.S., Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. Covenant House uses a “continuum of care” model that includes mental health care, substance use treatment and prevention, education and job readiness programs, legal aid services, pre- and post-natal support for young mothers, and transitional and supportive apartment living programs. During the COVID-19 crisis Covenant House has been keeping its sites open 24-7, and repurposed physical space to accommodate sick or symptomatic youth, so even if they test positive, they still have a safe place to stay.

Friends of WPC Nepal
There has been a rise in human trafficking in Nepal, as people are desperate to make ends meet during the pandemic. Friends of WPC Nepal funds a safe home in Hetauda, Nepal, for 28 children who are at-risk or survived trafficking, and sends them to private school. The organization also provides scholarships for 58 children in the Hetauda community, as education combats the risk of trafficking and provides a better future. Friends of WPC Nepal also conducts a Trafficking Awareness and Child Rights program that reaches rural villages in Nepal where trafficking is prevalent. This program educates children and families on how to recognize deceptive promises from traffickers and to report it to community leaders and authorities. This program even led to the takedown of a well-established trafficking network.

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) is the leading national organization advocating for the rights of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children in the U.S. In 2008, KIND was founded by the Microsoft Corporation and UNHCR Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie, to address the gap in legal services for unaccompanied minors. Through strategic partnerships, KIND provides pro bono legal representation for refugee and migrant children across the country. Over the past decade, KIND has expanded its services to develop a holistic strategy for addressing the needs of these children and the systemic causes of forced migration. This includes mental and social services, advocating for new law and policy in the U.S. and countries of origin, and educating policymakers and the broader public about these issues. To date, KIND has been referred to more than 20,000 children since 2009, has had over 50,000 training participants on how to represent children alone, and fostered over 644 legal partners.

Girl Rising
Millions of girls around the world are kept out of school, married as children, abused, trafficked and discriminated against. Simply because they are girls. Girl Rising uses the power of storytelling to change the way the world values girls and their education. When girls are valued and educated they become women who are healthier, have fewer children, earn more, stand up for their rights and educate their sons and daughters equally. Families thrive. Communities, nations and the world are healthier, safer, and more prosperous.

Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world and directs its advocacy towards governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices. After having interviewed students, parents, and teachers in 55 countries about their experiences during the pandemic, Human Rights Watch warns that “[g]irls, children with disabilities, children living in poverty, and others are often at greater risk.” As leaders work towards a safe reopening of in-person schooling, here are five things Human Rights Watch recommends doing right away: First, schools that offer remote learning should reach out to students missing from online classes, try to help them re-engage, and provide remedial education. Second, illegal and arbitrary policies that were already keeping children out of school should be lifted. Third, school buildings must be protected, and fourth, affordable, reliable, and accessible internet service must be secured for all students. Finally, any technology recommended for online learning must protect children’s privacy rights.

Save the Children
Unprecedented in scale, COVID-19 is a global crisis that poses immediate threats to children’s rights to survival, development, learning, protection, and to be heard. Unless mitigated, the pandemic risks undermining progress made on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and puts an entire generation of children at risk of not fulfilling their potential. From the beginning, Save the Children has been working on the ground to ensure that children are protected. This includes providing learning materials for children out of school, working to protect children from violence, and training and supporting health workers in some of the most challenging places in the world. In September, Save the Children launched Protect a Generation, the largest ever global survey of its kind since the pandemic was declared. Covering 46 countries, with 31,683 parents and caregivers and 13,477 children (11-17 years old) participating, the survey revealed that the pandemic has had an especially devastating impact on the education of children from poorer backgrounds and is widening the gap between rich and poor and boys and girls. Two-thirds of the children had no contact with teachers during lockdown; 93 percent of households that lost over half of their income reported difficulties in accessing health services; and violence at home doubled during school closures.

Children continue to be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted everything that we know is critical for children’s social, physical, mental and emotional development, learning and well-being. As a result of COVID-19, nearly 1.19 billion students in 150 countries have been affected by school closures; 80 million children in at least 68 countries may be at risk of diphtheria, measles and polio due to a decline in immunizations; and 369 million children have missed out on school meals. UNICEF contributes to both outbreak control and mitigation of the collateral impacts of the pandemic, including interruptions to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health, nutrition, education, protection and essential social services for children, women and vulnerable populations. The organization is also striving to ensure children are protected at home and in the transition to online environments. To learn more, visit UNICEF’s page on protecting children’s rights: