As countries experience extended lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, more women and children face precarious economic and domestic situations. As a result, the world has seen rising cases of gender based violence (GBV) and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of children. The World Bank has the opportunity to strengthen its GBV and SEA protections for women and children and should consider how to do so as it funds COVID-19 recovery projects. In particular, we draw on Uganda’s experience with GBV and child SEA response demonstrate the need for the Bank and Ugandan government to continue to prioritize the rights of women and children throughout the COVID-19 response.
The outbreak of COVID-19 that led countries, including Uganda, to enforce lockdown and travel restrictions contributed to an increase in GBV and child SEA cases. The closure of schools left many girls vulnerable and at risk of sexual exploitation. The disruption of essential services has led to rising mortality rates for pregnant women trying to access maternal services.
Over the past four years, the World Bank in particular has made changes internally and supported Ugandan government ministries to implement policies and action plans to prevent and respond to GBV and SEA of women and children in World Bank funded projects and beyond. Taking lessons learned from responding to GBV/SEA allegations in the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project, both the Bank and the Government committed to reduce SEA of women and children in infrastructure projects. We use these lessons from the cooperation between the Bank and Ugandan government to propose protection methods for preventing SEA of women and children in the COVID-19 context.
1. Operationalize the national COVID-19 Preparedness and Response plan. Together with development partners including the World Bank, Uganda prepared a national COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, which is continuously being updated to respond to the evolving pandemic and its impact on people and the environment. The plan details child protection measures along with steps to take to mitigate and respond to child SEA and GBV. The measures include the promotion of a child helpline and a communication strategy to address social norms that perpetuate violence against children and gender based violence. The plan also outlines provisions for training health workers, local leadership, community police, and the judiciary to protect children from SEA and respond to and mitigate GBV. Development partners must commit to the funding, implementation, and monitoring of this plan to effectively pursue a just recovery for the people of Uganda.
2. Take a gender-sensitive approach to the COVID-19 response. The World Bank is also supporting Uganda with a US $300 million COVID-19 Economic Crisis and Recovery Development Policy Financing IDA loan aimed at enhancing the crisis response, protecting marginalized groups most affected by the crisis, and strengthening economic recovery and debt transparency. The loan includes provisions for safe access to education and a National Child Policy to address violence against children and young women, which is aggravated during times of economic uncertainty such as the current COVID-19 crisis. Both the World Bank and the Government of Uganda (GoU) must consider the gender implications of COVID-19 and how to strengthen child protection and GBV response systems to facilitate an equitable recovery.
3. Include and monitor GBV action plans in ongoing projects. Guided by the Good Practice Note on Addressing SEA/SH in Investment Project Financing Involving Major Civil Works, the World Bank in Uganda retrofitted 16 ongoing projects in the Bank-supported portfolio to include GBV action plans. We also encourage the Bank to include measures specific to preventing and responding to child SEA in these action plans. This would include requirements for conducting stakeholder engagement with child-focused agencies, families, and children themselves in a child-friendly manner, creating child-friendly reporting mechanisms, and implementing extra safeguards for children. New COVID-19 response projects should also consider GBV action plans with an understanding of the disproportionate and unique effects women and children face as a result of the pandemic.
4. Learn from previous projects to protect children in project implementation areas. Taking lessons learned from the Emergency Child Protection Response (ECPR) project and the Supporting Children’s Opportunities through Protection and Empowerment (SCOPE) project, the Government of Uganda (GoU), through the World Bank-funded Development Response to Displacement Impact Project (DRDIP), is taking preventive action to combat violence against children. DRDIP fosters an environment for children’s empowerment and participation, and it takes a community-driven approach by emphasizing participation of district leadership and local stakeholders in coordination with development partners. While in-person interactions may prove difficult during COVID-19, the Bank should pursue safe methods to continue training communities and provide project reporting mechanisms to protect children throughout the pandemic.
5. Continue to monitor compliance with World Bank safeguards policies to protect children. Throughout the pandemic, Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) has continued to construct roads, while maintaining safeguard monitoring. Effective monitoring is essential because road projects present increased risks for child SEA due to labor influxes. As a result of general safeguards enforcement, work on the Uganda North Eastern Road-corridor Asset Management Project is currently stopped because of continued failure by the contractor to comply with contract provisions for safeguards. This enforcement of safeguards indicates progress, but the Bank must continue to monitor the contractor’s compliance, as well as implement strong child protection response systems once the project resumes. Moreover, the Bank should provide guidance on how to adapt safeguards monitoring and enforcement during the COVID-19 crisis.
The World Bank has made progress in implementing institutional protections to prevent SEA with Uganda serving as an example of how the Bank and government have advanced recent changes. We recognize the importance of these measures and encourage the Bank to clarify how it will apply these, along with adequately addressing child protection risks, in its COVID-19 recovery. The Bank should support continuation of essential services during the COVID-19 response as these are key to mitigating, preventing, and responding to cases of GBV and SEA of women and children.
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