Protecting children from a distance

An ongoing experience in virtual child protection during COVID-19

By Hope Ejang Muzungu
coronavirus, COVID-19, stay at home, protection, fathers, parenting, parents need to know
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Abdul
22 June 2020

Over a four-month lock down period, the cases of violence against children have steadily risen in Uganda. The restrictions on movement and physical interaction have called for reprogramming of child protection measures and service delivery.

Three in four children in Uganda reported a lifetime experience of some type of violence during childhood, according to a 2018 Ministry of Gender survey. But that was before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Three weeks into a national lock down imposed in March 2020 to curtail the spread of the disease, the cases of violence against children rapidly increased and have since continued to spiral.

Worldwide, children are one of the primary victims of COVID-19, not so much from infection but from secondary impact like loss of parents’ livelihoods, psychological trauma from increasing domestic violence and reduced access to basic needs including education. In April 2020, the Uganda Child Helpline received over ten times the usual number of calls; over 21,000 in 14 days, reporting cases of child neglect, sexual and physical abuse, and making inquiries about COVID-19, particularly on how to receive government food rations. In May, a UNICEF-supported project reported 28 cases of violence against children in Amudat, Tororo, Kaabong, Moroto and Napak districts. Over half reported child neglect, followed by defilement and child labour. One murder arising from attempted defilement was also reported. It is evident that there is a dire need to reimagine ways of delivering child protection programming in the wake of movement and service delivery restrictions. 

Social workers at the forefront of protection

Since being recognized in April 2020 as essential / critical staff in the fight against COVID-19, social welfare officers have responded to, and reported cases of violence against children, including providing emergency foster care and referrals to police for investigations and arrest of perpetrators. In Adjumani, Arua and Kitgum districts alone, an average of 50 cases of violence have been reported per week, since the social work force resumed duty. During the same period in Karamoja, 14 girls were rescued from female genital mutilation in a region with a 90 per cent incidence rate. 

Social workers who were previously a component of the child protection framework, now are a critical element in continuity and delivery of protection services and often have to travel long distances, for child protection awareness campaigns, investigations and response. UNICEF, through its implementing partners, is delivering assorted supplies such as bicycles, gumboots, case registers, and back packs to facilitate the work of social workers in the delivery of protection services. 

Social media as a tool for protection

With restrictions on physical interaction and movement, what used to be regarded as social media is increasingly being used as a tool for virtual coordination of child protection during COVID-19. District-specific WhatsApp groups comprising district and parish level social protection stakeholders including the Family Protection Unit of Police are being used to prevent, report and coordinate response to child abuse.  According Daniel Okello, Child Protection Specialist UNICEF Gulu Field Office, the groups have facilitated efficient communication and immediate response, which are critical factors in child protection, more especially during the COVID-19 lock down.

Increasing parental engagement and support 

With nearly the entire country at home, the role of mass media in socialization, health communication and even child protection cannot be over emphasized. Radio messages aired nationally are mobilizing leaders and community members to address child and adolescent protection issues and are also equipping parents with knowledge and skills needed to support home-based activities for children in the context of COVID-19. In Amudat, Kaabong and Kirenga districts, parental engagement is complemented by an adolescent volunteer initiative that is mapping out and communicating safe places for children in communities.  

Though COVID-19 has challenged the context, structure and delivery of child protection programmes worldwide, UNICEF is committed to building back better and strengthening systems to ensure continued survival, learning, health and safety for every child even from a distance.