Children may face heightened risks during the coronavirus epidemic and Islamic Relief is working to keep them safe, says Neelam Fida, our Child Protection and Inclusion Advisor.

Islamic Relief’s Child Protection and Inclusion Advisor, Neelam Fida.

In times of crisis, the most vulnerable are often dealt the greatest share of suffering. Evidence from previous pandemics indicate that existing child protection risks are compounded, and new ones emerge. This not only results in children being exposed to risk of harm and abuse but existing socioeconomic impacts of prevention and control measures are strained.

An additional challenge as a result of coronavirus is the risk to children with disabilities, who often struggle to receive necessarily support and assistance but are now further excluded due to the burden health systems and providers are under.

So while anxiety – and even panic – spreads with the virus from country to country, my thoughts are with the children who rely on Islamic Relief.

For many of them are already vulnerable children and it’s not COVID-19 that scares them the most. It is that this deadly virus exposes them to even greater risks than before.

In some places schools have closed to slow the spread of coronavirus. In my country, the UK, children’s education has been paused or moved to online learning, while most are urged to stay home to save lives.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is tracking the impact of the pandemic on education. As of March 30, they estimate that 87% of the world’s students, 1.5 billion learners, have been affected by school closures. The majority of these students are in primary or secondary education.

At risk children have very few opportunities to learn and develop new skills given their limited access to education and resources. With the loss of child friendly spaces and schools, tension and pressure mounts around them and some are more likely to experience abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation by their caregiver or someone close to them.

Many children who would normally go hungry have regular meals through schools, which are now suspended, exposing them to malnutrition.

Deepening risks to vulnerable children

The economic impact of this crisis will deepen child poverty, not just here but around the world. Children are facing dire circumstances as the virus is robbing them of their norm and futures.

In families that lose lives or livelihoods to COVID-19, children may have to drop out of school – either to take on a carer’s role, adopt household tasks, or to work to help make ends meet.

As households struggle to cope, some children will be vulnerable to sex for assistance, commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriages.

Families struggling to get by will fall deeper into poverty, with its negative impacts on every aspect of life, including physical and mental health and development. Particularly alarming are warnings from health experts that interruptions to vaccination programmes could see terrible diseases like measles and polio resurge.

Isolation and fear is shrinking connections with relatives, friends, and community members. And it’s harder than ever for children to access much needed community support and play spaces. Restrictions to movement also limits access to child protection services and systems which further propel children to risk of harm.

A child protection session with refugee children run by Islamic Relief in Jordan last year.

Islamic Relief is responding to coronavirus

Islamic Relief is providing an emergency response to the coronavirus crisis and has begun preparations to respond to the safeguarding needs of vulnerable children amid the pandemic.

Involving children in our interventions, our preparedness activities include identifying mental health and psychosocial support as well as education activities where children need alternatives. We are working with faith leaders and communities to boost protection for children, and with health practitioners to share vital information in hard to reach communities. We are also developing interagency plans to strengthen collaboration.

In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be examining how we might train health, education and children’s services on safeguarding, and how to use technology to conduct age and gender appropriate awareness sessions remotely.

We’ll adapt our referral pathways, identify families who’ve seen their ability to earn a living jettisoned, and help communities facing restrictions on movement keep access to child friendly spaces whilst adhering to health guidelines.

We will do all we can to help keep children safe during the pandemic – and beyond.

There is something we can all do to help stop children losing their futures to this pandemic. With your support, Islamic Relief can continue to be there for children and families during this crisis: please donate to our Coronavirus Appeal now.