There is growing concern about the longer term implications of COVID-19 on children. Countries around the world have closed school doors, a vital source of support to children and communities. Schools not only provide education, but also serve as an essential source of food, healthcare, and other support services. In addition to losing access to education, children at home due to COVID-19 related lockdowns, movement restrictions, and school closures are more susceptible to child labor, child marriage, violence, and sexual exploitation and abuse.
Earlier this week, World Bank President Malpass told the Guardian that the sheer numbers of out-of-school children around the world is a “huge tragedy.” Malpass said, “It is pretty clear. When children are out of school they lose some of what they have already learned.” He also referred to the compounding factors a loss of education has on the physical protection of young girls who are facing increased risks of child marriage due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. In fact, in one municipality in Uganda, 17 girls aged 12 to 17 were married due to the COVID-19 lockdowns in one month. In Indonesia, a civil society organization working closely with World Bank project-affected communities reported to BIC that reports of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) have gone up since the lockdown began.
Addressing the loss of learning and knock-on effects on child protection that the World Bank President acknowledged requires a dedicated and system-wide response. As the World Bank considers its plans for COVID-19 recovery, it needs to prioritize protection of children and promotion of children’s rights over the long term in order to achieve its twin goals of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity. The most effective way to do so is by embracing a systems approach that supports children. This should include:
1. Rethink how the education system can support children. Historically, the education system has focused primarily on the school and its students, teachers, and administrators, lacking a holistic approach that would adequately address the ways in which all children and youth can access and remain in school. With schools closed and debates around what safe reopening will look like, COVID-19 presents an opportunity for the World Bank to take the lead in minimizing the “huge tragedy” of learning loss by helping countries to rebuild and redefine an education system that addresses the needs of all children. Transportation, housing, and water and sanitation, among others, are key pieces of the education system that help get children in school and learning, and compel them to stay there. For example, access to clean, safe, and accessible toilets and clean water at school is linked to school attendance, especially for girls.
2. Take a cross-sectoral approach to child protection. President Malpass highlighted how COVID-19 has affected multiple sectors from nutrition, to school, to child protection and beyond, so it is imperative that the Bank move to address the long-term COVID-19 impacts in a more holistic way. All World Bank-funded projects must assess the disaggregated impacts of projects on children, enabling the Bank to prevent and mitigate negative repercussions while removing barriers to access project benefits. For example, a World Bank-funded housing construction project should identify risks to children, including the potential for children to be employed by the project or for there to be an increase in SEA. The housing project must also evaluate how it fits into a larger system that should be designed to support children. How will children living in the project area access schools? Will the project displace any families that had been living in informal housing? If so, how will that affect children from those families? What safety measures are in place around the community?
3. Foster inclusivity in system strengthening. A public transport project that takes into consideration safety issues around social distancing and violence against children could help facilitate children’s access to school but only if it is designed in an inclusive manner. Accessibility is especially important for marginalized children, such as children with disabilities. As schools begin to reopen and development projects are designed and redesigned, it is imperative that all projects identify ways to remove barriers to access. Projects should avoid planning in silos that create barriers to children’s education access, like focusing solely on building accessible classrooms but not addressing the accessibility of roads that enable children with disabilities to access school, and guard against increasing vulnerabilities and child protection risks for children.
4. Promote stakeholder engagement to improve project impact. One critical way to minimize harms and maximize benefits of projects is through meaningful stakeholder engagement. It is important that this engagement includes consultations with children and civil society organizations working on child rights throughout the project life cycle. Experience has shown that children raise different issues of concern than adults, so including their voices facilitates project design and implementation that is inclusive, child-friendly, and safe for all children. Meaningful stakeholder engagement early and often can help prevent child SEA, which has become more prevalent due to COVID-19 as President Malpass highlighted. The World Bank can play a leading role in pushing countries to safely include children in consultations.
A comprehensive and cross-cutting approach to child protection should be fundamental to all COVID-19 response and recovery projects so that children, particularly those that are the most marginalized, are able to thrive in the post-COVID recovery period. Focusing on the needs and voices of children is absolutely critical to building back better, more inclusive systems.
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