When ‘home’ doesn’t necessarily mean safe (EVA)

Or the invisible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children

04 November 2020
  • During the pandemic, from April to September, the Child Helpline counsellors answered more than 1700 calls.
  • Every fourth call was made by a child (1300 calls).
  • According to the data of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Protection – 32 children lost their lives as a result of household accidents in the first half of this year.
  • School and kindergarten teachers identified more than 3500 suspected cases of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, labour exploitation, sexual harassment and bullying in the first half of the year alone. 

The day-to-day life of communities across the country was turned upside down over the last six months because of the COVID-19-driven restrictions, with people having to observe the self-isolation regime. For many families, the COVID-19 pandemic meant coping, for the first time ever, with work and childcare responsibilities at the same time in the same place.

This entire time, more than 500 thousand children from Moldova[1] stayed at home in isolation with their families.

Many of these children became, for the first time, victims of violence as a result of isolation measures, closed schools and kindergartens, and pressure inflicted by fear for one’s own health. One’s home that is supposed to make one feel safe, has turned – paradoxically – into a hotbed of dangers for children. 

The financial strain that parents have to cope with because of their workplaces have either been liquidated or closed down, the loss of income and livelihood can turn into triggers of violence against children. All the stress that comes along with these circumstances is conducive to adults’ aggressive behaviour towards children. 

‘The pandemic affected not only socially vulnerable families. Its negative effects reached everyone. Schools and kindergartens closed, many parents lost their jobs. Income-earning opportunities became scarce. Parents try their hardest to earn money for a living and have no time left to talk to their children regarding their struggles. Quite the contrary – because of all the stress they are under – parents often take it out on their children both verbally and physically. It is therefore our duty – the duty of child protection institutions, organisations and professionals – to ensure child protection and to share information about combating violence against children and about assistance services available for children,’ – Irina Pruneanu, community social worker, Sculeni Township, Ungheni.

[1] Source: https://statistica.gov.md/newsview.php?l=ro&idc=168&id=6662

UNICEF Moldova 2020

Below are the risk factors conducive to violence, abuse and neglect of children amid the pandemic:

• growing poverty and food insecurity because of loss of jobs and income; 

• children not being able to pursue education neither in person, nor online; 

• children being more involved with the digital devices, alongside less oversight by their caregivers, which exposes children to the risk of online violence; 

• unavailability of nutritious meals that children used to be provided in school and the lack of care programs; 

• a different routine for children/caregivers; 

• higher consumption of alcohol and/or prohibited substances among adolescents/caregivers; 

• ad-hoc arrangements with regards to child oversight when the caregiver has to go to work etc.

Any if these factors is likely to expose children that are already trapped in an environment of abuse and neglect to a higher risk of aggression.

Irina Pruneanu, asistentă socială comunitară, comuna Sculeni, Ungheni, Moldova, 2020
comuna Sculeni, Ungheni, Moldova, 2020
Comuna Sculeni, Ungheni, Moldova, 2020

Verbal & psychological abuse

According to UNICEF, one of the key issues of violence against children, especially as regards verbal and psychological abuse (shouting, humiliating or threatening), as well as some forms of corporal punishment (slapping or hair pulling) is that the those who commit them do not see a problem. A UNICEF assessment[2] revealed that the most frequently committed form of punishment is shouting at children. Although Moldova doesn’t have official data on violence against children during the pandemic, the number of calls to the Child Helpline increased significantly. More often than not, the victims do not seek support out of fear or embarrassment. 

During April-September 2020, the Child Helpline counsellors answered 1,766 calls, 234 of which were repeated calls. Children were provided, most frequently, psychological counselling regarding the lack of communication, sexuality and peer-to-peer relationships. 

The most recent report of the Ministry of Education, Culture showed that education professionals identified 3363 suspected cases of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, labour exploitation, sexual harassment and bullying in the first half of the year. Most cases – more than 1300 – were cases of physical violence. Neglect and emotional violence equally widespread – around 1000 cases each.

‘These data do not mirror the reality’ – violence is much more extensive

[2] Source: https://www.unicef.org/romania/sites/unicef.org.romania/files/2020-02/Ghid%20Stop%20Violenta.pdf

COVER- Child helpline.png

According to Daniela Simboteanu, Chair of the National Centre for Prevention of Child Abuse, the numbers reported by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Research do not reflect the reality: ‘These figures do certainly not reflect the reality. There are very many cases that didn’t come to the attention of authorities because of children staying isolated in quarantine. I dare to make this statement because the monitoring of violence amid the pandemic around the world has proved that not only did violence not subside, on the contrary – it surged significantly, many cases still remaining undiscovered. The explanation behind this fact could be that children had limited access to reporting means during the isolation. Many children suffered through a range of forms of violence without having had though the possibility to report them. On the one hand, as children didn’t go to school, they were stripped of the opportunity to communicate, and on the other hand – the teachers were not able to notice the red flags indicative of potential abuse. As we at the National Centre for Prevention of Child Abuse provide specialised support to children victims –  and the children who come to us are already in severe need of assistance – we were able to notice the trend that once the lockdown ended and the restrictions became more relaxed – the number of case notifications surged significantly. Compared to May-June 2019, the number of cases reported in May-June 2020 increased by 45%. We regard this as proof of the fact that children suffered through the cases of violence silently during the lockdown of March-April, as they did not have the possibility to report them.’ the expert recounted.

Violence is more frequent during the pandemic

The data at global level[3] shows that cases of physical, emotional, sexual violence and neglect surged and that these phenomena became more frequent, more severe and lengthier during isolation. What is more, statistics show that certain forms of violence are overlooked or regarded as normal. 


Report violence

There are different ways to prevent violence against children. First and foremost, one can call the Child Helpline by dialling 116 111. This free and confidential counselling service is available around the clock, seven days a week  The single national emergency number 112 can take calls and redirect them accordingly where response is needed to cases of violence. Cases of violence can also be reported to the district Division of Social Assistance and Family Protection and to the Chisinau Municipal Child Protection Division. Every child can report a case to the police, teachers or mayor.

This publication was developed with financial support from the European Union. Its contents fall under the exclusive responsibility of UNICEF Moldova and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU.

This article was drafted under the EVA Project – ‘Promoting Gender Equality in Cahul and Ungheni Districts’, funded by the European Union, and implemented by UN WOMEN in partnership with UNICEF Moldova.

[3] https://www.unicef.org/appeals/files/UNICEF_Global_COVID19_Situation_Report_No_6__15_28_May_2020.pdf