This article, written by two members of Doughty Street Chambers’ Children’s Rights Group, sets out recent guidance issued by UN bodies on the coronavirus impact on children and young people and implications for the UK. It looks at five issues: (A) Participation and information; (B) Violence, exploitation and abuse; (C) Education; (D) Supporting families; and (E) Children in detention. 

While COVID-19 may produce less severe symptoms for children and thankfully a lower mortality rate, a UN policy brief has observed that it is “potentially catastrophic for many children around the world. Its impact risks unravelling global progress across several of the Sustainable Development Goals for children, putting already ambitious targets out of sight”. 

(A) Information and participation

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to ensure that children have access to information (Article 17) and the right to participation (Article 12). This means each child who is capable of forming his or her own views has the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting her or him.

Placing this into the coronavirus context, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio (UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children) and Najat Maalla M’jid (UN Special Representative on violence against children) have called on governments to “empower children to participate actively in responding to this crisis, including through peer-to-peer initiatives.”

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has made clear that children are entitled to accurate information about infection prevention. Such information should be disseminated “in languages and formats that are child-friendly and accessible to all children including children with disabilities, migrant children and children with limited access to the Internet.”

UNICEF has issued guidance about how to speak to children about coronavirus, including what it is and why restrictions are in place. A number of UN agencies have collaborated on a book, which can be downloaded in many languages, entitled “My hero is you, How kids can fight COVID-19!”. With the help of a fantasy creature, Ario, the book explains how children can protect themselves, their families and friends from coronavirus and how to manage difficult emotions when confronted with a new and rapidly changing reality. It is available in many languages, from Albanian to Welsh. 

(B) Violence, exploitation and abuse  

Schools are closed, there is growing economic insecurity and there are severe restrictions on movement. These have combined to produce a sharp increase in the incidence of violence in the home. Children may witness that violence and may be on the receiving end of it. Further to the current increase of trauma, countries that do not put in place adequate resources and plans now risk causing children to suffer long-term neglect, abuse and mental health problems. 

Research carried out after the Ebola crisis found that 55 percent of children in focus groups said that they thought violence against children in their community had risen during or after the epidemic. That the current lockdowns place children at a “greater risk of experiencing violence, exploitation and challenges to their mental health” is of concern to Maud de Boer-Buquicchio and Najat Maalla M’jid. 

There are also fears that practices that harmful traditions such as FGM, child marriage and forced marriage (which were underground pre-coronavirus) may increase while the world is in lockdown and attention is elsewhere. The UN’s COVID-19 webpages notes that “social and economic turmoil will heighten girls’ risk of early marriage, pregnancy and gender-based violence.”

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has said that lockdown “may expose children to increased physical and psychological violence at home, or force children to stay in homes that are overcrowded and lack the minimum conditions of habitability”. The UN policy brief adds that there is a risk of children not only being victims of violence – especially violence against women – but witnessing it against other members of the household.

Both the Committee and the policy brief call on governments to strengthen child protection services and roll out innovative services such as “toll-free 24-hours hotlines, free texting services, remote psychological and social services and mobile shelters for minors”. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child calls for governments to “strengthen phone and online reporting and referral systems as well as sensitization and awareness activities through TV, radio and online channels”.

The risks for children from online violence, abuse and exploitation are growing, especially because people are not travelling so they are spending more time online. This, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio and Najat Maalla M’jid argue will lead to “sexual grooming online by paedophiles and predators, live streaming of child sexual abuse and the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material”. To combat these forms of child abuse, the experts call for a “robust collaboration between private industry and law enforcement”, including the monitoring of encrypted paedophile networks. 

Supporting these recommendations, the UN Secretary General has called on social media companies to step up to their “special responsibility to protect the vulnerable.”

To help parents keep their children safe online while stuck at home during the outbreak, UNICEF has produced some useful guidance

(C) Education

School and university closures are impacting over 90% of the world’s student population, according to UNESCO

The Treaty Bodies - committees with responsibility for interpreting the UN human rights covenants and conventions - have called for the continuation of the right to education, “including distance learning, to continue access to education, particularly for children and adolescents. Students with disabilities should also have equal access to the same education opportunities.” 

While the focus is increasing online education delivery, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has warned that online learning risks exacerbating existing inequalities. It says that many children “have limited or no access to technology or the Internet or do not have adequate parental support”, such that “alternative solutions should be available for such children to benefit from the guidance and support provided by teachers.” 

UNICEF has warned that children with disabilities “may be at risk of exclusion from education if remote / distance learning programmes are not accessible or they do not have assistive devices to allow participation and accommodate learning needs”. Unicef gives examples of assistive devices as talking calculators, text magnifiers, alternative keyboards and audio books.

UNESCO has established a “COVID-19 Global Education Coalition”, which supports governments to enhance and scale up equitable learning during school closures. It has resources around five key messages for states: (1) Coordinate, plan and communicate; (2) Maintain operational capacities during school closures; (3) Provide continuous support to teachers, learners and their families; (4) Provide hygiene and health education; and (5) Prepare for school reopening.

Through its #LearningNeverStops campaign, UNESCO is calling on students, teachers and parents to share their stories about how they are coping and continuing to learn, as a way to inspire others and give hope.  

(D) Supporting families

According to UNICEF, not only will the economic impact of coronavirus be felt hardest by the world’s most vulnerable children, but the measures taken by governments “risk plunging them further into hardship.” Without urgent action to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak and response, tens of millions of children already living on the edge of hardship will fall into poverty.

The UN policy brief notes that coronavirus-related “income shocks at the household level, even if only temporary, can have devastating effects on children, particularly those living in poor households with limited assets.” Research has revealed that 126 countries had introduced or adapted social protection measures, of which 83 provide explicit support for children and their families (correct as of 10 April 2020).

(E) Children in detention

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged governments to “[r]elease children in all forms of detention, whenever possible, and provide children who cannot be released with the means to maintain regular contact with their families.” Observing that visits to children in detention have been restricted because of coronavirus and noting that such restrictive measures may be necessary in the short term, “over long periods they will have a marked negative effect on children”. 

The Committee has urged governments to ensure telephone or electronic communications so that children can “at all times be allowed to maintain regular contact with their families”. In any event, it has warned, “children in migration situations should not be detained nor separated from their parents if accompanied”.

Conclusion

The UN policy brief describes the pandemic as “an unprecedented crisis” that “presents unprecedented risks to the rights and safety and development of the world’s children”. To mitigate those risks there needs to be “unprecedented international solidarity for children and humanity.” 

While there is a tendency to row back on safeguards or overlook the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on children already in low income households, all states need to act with urgency to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and protect children. 

We will use our best endeavours to update this blog as new guidance is issued. Please feel free to bring any information to our attention by emailing us at z.samuel@doughtystreet.co.uk and o.lewis@doughtystreet.co.uk or tweeting us at @SamuelZimran and @DrOliverLewis.

Bibliography