COVID-19: Families and Child Rights

by José A. Vázquez in collaboration with the International Organizations Department of the International Federation for Family Development (IFFD)

 

   While the COVID-19 pandemic has been spreading around the world, the poorest and most vulnerable have been the hardest hit, especially women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities and their families[1]. Stress levels within the family have risen, domestic violence has been endured by women and children alike, students have been out of school with unequal access to distance learning, older persons have paid the highest price with alarming death toll and health care workers have been at the front-line of the response efforts[2].

   It is clear that every household has faced unprecedented challenges related to confinement, school closures and job disruptions. As a consequence, parents and caregivers are deeply concerned for their families’ well-being with special attention to children, the means to protect them, ensure their care, their quality education and future opportunities. As in 2008 and the following years, families are facing a similar situation. The effects of the economic collapse impacted millions of children and their families. The financial crisis turned into a global recession while governments responded with changes to a suite of social and economic policies. In an effort to cushion the impact many countries endured a period of stimulus followed by a move towards austerity[3].

   Similarly, in 2020 many countries have started stimulus plans while austerity periods are most probably set to follow. In order to respond accordingly and prevent a bigger impact on the most vulnerable, children’s well-being and their future has to be prioritized. Innovative and holistic ways to protect the youngest generations are needed to endure dire circumstances and to efficiently use available resources. Every policy should consider that children live in the context of the family and the family exists in the context of the economy. Policymakers must consider the macro and micro context for families and their children in order to make sense of the potential effects of the stimulus and austerity measures on the lives of the youngest[4].

   During the following years and the various cuts to follow, there are many good reasons to focus on the levels of spending on children. First, children are mostly in a family environment, and regardless of their opportunities, it is fair to have a holistic approach to make the most of their available opportunities. Second, because the way children are taken care of today will affect the future generations. Third, if children in vulnerable situations and susceptible to poor outcomes lose investment in critical periods of the life cycle, the long-term impact and costs will have consequences for them, their families and the communities. A preventive approach while investing in children is efficient and fair. The gaps in child outcomes closed early are gaps closed more cheaply, and gaps future policymakers and taxpayers will not have to worry about[5].

   Perhaps, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) should be a starting point for a better assessment of the policy implications on children and their families. Children’s rights are defined in numerous ways, including a wide spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights[6]. The CRC sets a basic “contract” not only between the signatories and children, but also between adults and children. It is a model to follow in order to ensure that children have access to resources, they are protected and they are allowed to participate. The “contract” is built upon three universal elements of the organisation of childhood in any society and at any time: provision, protection and participation, usually known as the three P’s[7]. As a result, it can be a useful roadmap for the design and implementation of social policies considering the austerity period ahead and the family as the first “signatory” of children rights[8].

PROVISION

   The CRC stresses that children should be able to possess, receive or have access “to the maximum extent of available resources”[9] through sharing and/or distribution. In this regard, this provision has implications involving a wide variety of resource allocation such as an adequate standard of living, health care and education. These provisions have a direct impact on policy design and implementation because states and adults need to establish which kinds of resources are distributed and what are the explicit and implicit consequences of certain decisions about resources. Moreover, which kinds of resources are produced and shared and by whom, or discover if children have any resources that can be shared.

   To start with, at a household level an adequate standard of living stands out as a critical layer of protection. Physical distancing and lockdown measures have isolated entire families in their houses and sometimes they are inadequate to share and live in for an extended period of time[10]. Furthermore, income collapse threatens the livelihoods of millions of households with children worldwide, precluding an increase in extreme poverty. Such income shocks at the household level, even if only temporary, can have devastating effects on children, particularly those living in poor households with limited assets[11]. For instance, as of 10 April 2020, 126 countries have expanded social protection assistance programmes to compensate households for lost income, of which 83 provide explicit support for children and their families[12].

   Health care provisions are becoming critical for children and their families. Even though infection, hospitalization and critical care rates are low on children, the broader effects of the pandemic on child health are significant[13]. For instance, poor families are forced to cut back on essential health and food expenditures, increasing the risk of contracting other diseases and infant mortality while, child health services and interventions are being directly disrupted by the pandemic[14]. Also, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services are at risk, threatening children’s health through water-borne diseases and given the critical role of hygiene during the pandemic. At the same time, the effects of confinement are affecting children’s mental health. Many are facing anxiety and uncertainty regarding the future while, extreme deprivations and acute stress can impair their cognitive development and trigger longer term mental health challenges[15].

   In addition, the unprecedented global closure of schools has halted the education provision of more than 1.5 billion children[16]. In the long term, it is hard to measure the magnitude of losses that may accrue in learning for today’s young generation, and for the development of their human capital. In order to minimize the squandering, many schools are offering distance learning to their students and parents are stepping in the education process. But not all pupils have access to new educational alternatives, especially those from low income countries, refugees, children with disabilities and girls. Plus, the quality and accessibility of distance education can hinder social inclusion in a future economic contraction due to school drop-out and low performance[17].

PROTECTION

   The CRC also mentions the right to protection from abuse, neglect, exploitation and discrimination. Protection stands for the right to be shielded from certain acts and practices including the right to safe places for children to play, constructive child rearing behavior, and acknowledgment of the evolving capacities of children. It is actually close to what we consider as parenting. Parents and caregivers are the first layer of protection of a child and in the framework of the COVID-19 pandemic, parenting skills are in urgent need.

   Home represents security and safety for most children, but sadly for a minority it is the opposite. The most common form of violence experienced by children comes from their own parents or care-givers[18]. They are often witnesses to domestic violence against their mothers or sisters, a situation that has increased in many countries following the COVID-19 outbreak with a spike of anxiety and stress[19]. An innovative and holistic way to support children at home can be helping their parents and caregivers to alleviate the isolation effects. For example, attacking the root of the concerns by designing a schedule, assigning chores, creative forms of exercise and games, and learning better ways to communicate among family members the challenges and solutions endured under lockdown[20].

   In this regard, lockdowns also present an opportunity for child abusers to harm children. Not only abusers at home but also online through cyberbullying or sexual exploitation due to the increased exposure to online platforms[21]. It is obvious that children are rarely in a position to fight back, but at the same time the use of new technologies has proven an effective measure to report such egregious acts. Additionally, children without parental care are especially vulnerable to exploitation and other negative coping measures. For example, the combined effect of school closures and economic distress is likely to force some children to drop out of school, to become child soldiers, and into child marriage in high-risk countries[22].

PARTICIPATION

   Participation stands for the right to do things, express oneself and have an effective voice as an individual child. If the rights to freedom are considered so vital for adults, they should be for children too. Children have the right to participate in communities with programs and services adapted to their age. With a chance to analyze the major issues affecting them now and in the future. As they examine their rights, they should explore their own responsibilities. It is true that children are members of their families and schools, but also of the specific generation into which they happen to be born. So, communities can be built on partnerships rather than on sole adult interests. This includes children’s involvement in libraries and community programs, youth voice activities, and implicating children as decision-makers.

   In summary, we need to get to know and understand the child generation which we are dealing with, and not to imagine that our adult-oriented knowledge of childhood reflects adequately their reality. Especially in this situation, we need to be available to them with our experiences and skills. Partnering with children will definitely help us as adults to better understand their growing world and avoid empty rhetoric[23].

   Parenting seems to be suitable again to foster children’s participation. By improving communication parents and caregivers make children active participants of their concerns and endeavours[24]. For example by sharing experiences and challenges; talking instead of just texting; paying attention to body language and facial expressions; acknowledging the positive intent behind what the other parent or child is suggesting, practicing kindness in order to show them how you would want them to treat others, discussing transitions between households and prepare your children for hand-over as best as you can[25].

   The lockdown is also a great opportunity to recognize the unpaid work at home and make children participate in the household care and chores. There is an urgent need to redistribute care work within families–so that women and men share care more equally. This is crucial in order to free the most marginalized women and girls from the unfair and unequal amount of care work they currently do. During the pandemic, important steps can be given to redistribute care work and keep children occupied and implicated[26]. For instance, tending to others, cooking, cleaning and fetching water and firewood are essential daily tasks for the wellbeing of societies, communities and the functioning of the economy[27].

DISCUSSION

   An interesting discussion has been set. The contract between signatories and children demands a coordinated implication of governments and families to unfold child rights in its provision, protection and participation implications.

   Expanded social protection programmes implemented during the pandemic, should consider explicit support to children and their families. Especially these days and the ones ahead, the family unit is the first layer of social protection and so, the most effective way to ensure children resource allocation and shield them from extreme poverty.

   The increased exposure of children to new technologies pose opportunities and challenges to governments and parents alike. Child protection and parent’s skill building is essential while investing in broadband access and digital public goods that support learning, alongside with regulations that ensure children’s privacy and safety.

   Children and youth participation in the decision making processes is crucial to fulfil the commitment between governments and adults with their rights. Confinement has created opportunities for children to be heard and also to get involved at home, at school and in various campaigns to tackle the pandemic effects.

   Looking forward, it is clear that governments have taken a wide range of actions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and response efforts. From global to local, now and in the days ahead, best practices and interventions need to adapt and foresee possible adverse unintended effects on children to ensure their rights enjoyment and wellbeing. Although, if polices oversee the role of parents, caregivers and families, the effectiveness of those interventions will be limited. As it has been evident during the health crisis, the first layer of protection of children is hard to replace.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

   This contribution was developed in collaboration with the International Organizations Department of the International Federation for Family Development.

 

[1] Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. United Nations (2020). Available at: https://unsdg.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/SG-Report-Socio-Economic-Impact-of-Covid19.pdf

[2] Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General (April 17, 2020). See also, ‘Everyone included: protecting vulnerable groups in times of a global pandemic’, available at: https://www.un.org/development/desa/undesavoice/highlights/2020/04#49113

[3] Dominic Richardson, ‘Child and Family Policies in a Time of Economic Crisis’, OECD (2010).

[4] Dominic Richardson, ‘Child and Family Policies in a Time of Economic Crisis’, OECD (2010). OECD (2011), Doing Better for Families. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/els/family/47701118.pdf

[5] Doing Better for Children, OECD (2009). Available at: http://www.oecd.org/social/family/doingbetterforchildren.htm.

[6] Elisabeth Young-Bruehl , ‘Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children’. Yale University Press, (2012).

[7] B. Franklin, B. (ed.), The Rights of Children. Basil Blackwell (1986)

[8] Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at: https://undocs.org/A/RES/44/25 and https://undocs.org/A/RES/50/155

[9] Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at: https://undocs.org/A/RES/44/25 and https://undocs.org/A/RES/50/155

[10] Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. United Nations (2020). Available at: https://unsdg.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/SG-Report-Socio-Economic-Impact-of-Covid19.pdf

[11] Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on children. UNICEF (2020). Available at: https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_children_16_april_2020.pdf

[12] Ugo Gentilini et al.,‘Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19:A Real-Time Review of Country Measures’, (2020). Available at: http://www.ugogentilini.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Country-SP-COVID-responses_April10.pdf. Families First Coronavirus Response Act, United States of America Congress (2020). Available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6201

[13] ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Coronavirus Disease 2019 in Children’, CDC (2020). Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/pdfs/mm6914e4-H.pdf

Dong Y., Mo X., Hu Y. et al., ‘Epidemiological characteristics of 2143 pediatric patients with 2019 coronavirus disease in China’. Pediatrics (2020); Available at: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2020/03/16/peds.2020-0702.full.pdf

Ian P. Sinha et al. ‘COVID-19 infection in children’, The Lancet ( 2020). Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2213-2600%2820%2930152-1

[14] Sarah Baird et al., Aggregate Income Shock and Infant Mortality in the Developing World (2011). Available at: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/4916/rest_a_00084.pdf;sequence=1

[15] H. J. Osofsky et al. ,‘Posttraumatic stress symptoms in children after Hurricane Katrina: predicting the need for mental health services’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. (2009). Available at: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-isnt-the-end-of-childhood-innocence-but-an-opportunity-to-re-think-childrens-rights-134478

[16] COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response. UNESCO (2020). Available at: https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse

[17] Measuring digital development. Facts and figures. International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (2019). Available at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/FactsFigures2019.pdf

[18] A Familiar Face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents. Unicef (2017). Available at: https://www.unicef.org/reports/familiar-face

[19] Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women. UN-Women (2020). Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-en.pdf?la=en&vs=1406

[20] Guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age World Health Organization (‎2019)‎. Available at: https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/311664

[21] Coronavirus, Online Learning, Social Isolation, and Cyberbullying: How To Support Our Students Cyberbullying Research Center, (March 16, 2020). Available at: https://cyberbullying.org/coronavirus-online-learning-social-isolation-cyberbullying

[22]Impacts of COVID-19 on children in alternative care (Eurochild, 2020). Available at: https://www.eurochild.org/news/blog/article/impacts-of-covid-19-on-children-in-alternative-care/

[23] Marjatta Bardy, ‘FICE Bulletin’ (2000). Available at: https://www.cyc-net.org/cyc-online/cycol-0500-threepees.html

[24] Supporting shared parenting in the time of COVID-19 – Practitioner Guide, Australian Catholic University, (April, 2020). Available at: https://safeguardingchildren.acu.edu.au/-/media/feature/micrositesarticles/safeguardingchildren/icps-flyer-prac.pdf

[25] Supporting shared parenting in the time of COVID-19 – Parents Guide, Australian Catholic University. (April, 2020). Available at: https://safeguardingchildren.acu.edu.au/-/media/feature/micrositesarticles/safeguardingchildren/icps-flyer-parent.pdf

[26] Finding Ways to Keep Children Occupied During These Challenging Times, American Academy of Pediatrics (2020). Available at: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Finding-Ways-to-Keep-Children-Occupied-During-These-Challenging-Times-.aspx

[27] Time to Care. Oxfam International (2020). Available at: https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/620928/bp-time-to-care-inequality-200120-en.pdf

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