The story of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding, yet rates of children being harmed are already on the rise.
In addition to the health risks posed to children and their families, economic fallout has led to increasing numbers of families facing economic insecurity, while lockdowns and movement restrictions have resulted in more out-of-school children than ever. Combined with the fact that children are disproportionately impacted by crises, these realities drastically increase the risks for child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) and child labor.
Unprecedented times call for an unprecedented response, and the World Bank has reacted quickly with a proposed $160 billion in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.
To-date, few World Bank COVID-19 response projects have adequately addressed child protection risks or included necessary mitigation measures. Many World Bank projects are still ongoing, including large infrastructure projects where workers’ camps are based near communities, posing a high risk for child SEA. Early reports reveal that monitoring measures on project sites have been temporarily suspended, putting children at heightened risk in communities where World Bank projects are active or starting up.
So, what should the World Bank do to protect children in its COVID-19 response?
1. Build child protection into project design. Because children are especially vulnerable at this time, it is critical that all COVID-19 response and recovery projects assess the disaggregated impacts and risks of projects on children, including child SEA. With a thorough assessment and appropriate risk rating, project design can implement early prevention mechanisms to help mitigate future risks.
2. Keep reporting mechanisms active. This includes child-friendly reporting systems and grievance redress mechanisms. Wherever possible reporting mechanisms should cater to remote methods of communication to make it more likely that child SEA will be uncovered and addressed during the current lockdown situation.
3. Train staff in regional and country offices on child protection mechanisms, such as recognizing, reporting, and responding to child SEA. World Bank staff at the national level will likely be able to travel to project sites more quickly than Washington D.C.-based staff. Country-level staff should be equipped with monitoring, reporting, and response tools to work with communities as soon as movement restrictions are lifted.
4. Work collaboratively with civil society, especially child-focused organizations, who work closely with project-affected communities and can help maintain access to child protection services, determine the best allocations for projects to help the most at-risk populations, and support children and communities in monitoring and reporting child SEA should it occur.
5. Establish a special focus on child protection in social protection projects. Although it is vital to take a child-friendly, comprehensive approach to all projects, perhaps the biggest opportunity for systemic change for children exists in World Bank-funded social protection projects. Because these projects have a particular focus on helping poor and vulnerable families to weather crises, find jobs, and invest in the next generation, they can drive catalytic change for children through systems strengthening and awareness raising. Therefore, social protection projects should contain specific child protection elements and provisions.
The World Bank has a responsibility to protect children from the short, medium, and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It must take immediate action in its COVID-19 response and recovery projects to prevent more children from being harmed in the future.
For more in-depth recommendations, see the policy brief on this issue.
Co-written with S. Dinn.