How can the World Bank mitigate the risk of child SEA during COVID-19?

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the risk of child exploitation and abuse (SEA) around the world. We provide recommendations for how the World Bank should work to mitigate this risk in project implementation during this crisis.

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has been abundantly clear; business as usual will not suffice. For the World Bank, this means rethinking how projects can be implemented in accordance with the Bank’s Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) despite the difficulty of carrying out on the ground monitoring.

Initially, the proposals to remedy gaps in safeguards implementation fell woefully short of what would be required to maintain protections for project-affected peoples, especially for those most vulnerable to negative project impacts, such as children. Virtual field visits supplemented with drone footage may be helpful for assessing progress of project works or identifying instances of deforestation, but are unlikely to uncover cases of worker misconduct and child sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). 

Child SEA is of particular concern due to the sensitivity of the issue and the global rise in child SEA resulting from the repercussions of COVID-19. Reports suggest that child abuse has increased due to existing patterns of abuse being exacerbated by lockdowns, close quarters, and unemployment during quarantine. Economic hardship and school closures have pushed children into child labor and globally the potential risk of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) has increased.

With this additional risk, it is critical that the World Bank effectively implements child protection measures detailed in the good practice note on preventing SEA and ESS4 guidance notes. Doing so will help prevent ongoing Bank projects from exacerbating the precarious situation for children. The pathways for monitoring proposed by the Bank early in the pandemic were inadequate to address this issue, making it less likely that project-affected peoples would report child SEA to relevant project authorities.

While progress has been made in safeguards implementation in some individual projects, lessons learned need to be applied consistently across the Bank’s portfolio in a way that includes measures for the mitigation of child SEA. To reduce the risk of child SEA and child labor in individual projects, the World Bank task teams and implementing agencies: 

1. Collaborate to find solutions to limited stakeholder engagement. As community engagement has become more difficult, the Bank, implementing agencies, and contractors should collaborate with community leaders and civil society organizations to devise alternative methods to safely conduct these activities. During the recent Civil Society Policy Forum, Operations Policy and Country Services (OPCS) at the Bank raised an example from the COVID-19 response project in Guatemala that utilized Whatsapp, physical letters, and landline calls to community leaders to conduct stakeholder engagement with minimal face-to-face contact. While this example is heartening, it is crucial that the Bank and implementers utilize similar measures in all projects where stakeholder engagement is being conducted, and adjust their methods based on local contexts. As part of this engagement, the Bank should include child protection actors, and should work to make communities aware of the child protection risks of a project and how to access reporting and accountability measures.

2. Safely conduct outreach to relevant CSOs in the project area. CSOs in the project area are a valuable resource for task teams and implementers. They can provide insight into community dynamics and key stakeholders the Bank should engage during the early stages of the project, and can help facilitate regular communication between project-affected communities and the implementing agency for monitoring later on. CSOs trained on child protection issues can be vital resources for children and families in the community as well as the implementing agencies for projects. The World Bank should contract with local CSOs to provide services to survivors of child SEA if and when cases arise. 

3. Work with implementers to devise innovative methods for COVID-19-safe training for project workers. While the World Bank’s gender-based violence (GBV) good practice note mandates child SEA prevention training, the increase in generalized risk to children means that this training is more important than ever. Children’s increased vulnerability due to quarantine measures reinforces the critical need for the Bank/implementing agency to train project workers  on what constitutes child SEA, prohibited behaviors, and how to report and respond to suspected or disclosed cases of child SEA. Bank and implementer staff based in the project area should be trained on project-specific risks to children, as well as how to conduct effective monitoring without risking COVID-19 transmission.

4. Maximize accessibility to reporting and grievance redress mechanisms (GRM). Children are even less likely than adults to report SEA, due to social stigma associated with SEA survivors and fear of retaliation. This is especially concerning in light of the aforementioned increase in child SEA due to COVID-19. The Bank should establish GRMs for projects in a child-sensitive manner, and implement measures to help children feel comfortable submitting reports. These should be designed with COVID-19 safety in mind, recognizing that school closures and other social distancing requirement make accessing these mechanisms particularly tricky for children. The Bank and implementing agencies should always promote the best interest of the child, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child article 3, paragraph 1

These measures, taken together, can help the World Bank cover gaps in safeguards implementation for the foreseeable future as COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the world. It is imperative that the Bank recognizes and responds to the challenges posed by the pandemic, or risk incalculable harm to some of the world’s most marginalized children.

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