CHIANG MAI, 19 MAY 2020: “Children have the right to be protected from all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence. The impacts of COVID-19 containment measures, school closures, and increased stress on families cannot be allowed to trickle down to children. Upholding the dignity and rights of children must be a key priority of governments, civil society organisations (CSOs), churches, and faith-based organisations (FBOs); children must be at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery and response,” opined the six panellists representing UNICEF, child rights’ activist networks, and Asian churches and councils at the CCA’s (Christian Conference of Asia) fourth virtual conference on ‘Upholding the Dignity and Rights of Children amidst the COVID-19 Crisis’.
The virtual webinar was held as part of the CCA’s ongoing series that has focused on pertinent issues and challenges that have emerged in Asia in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Held on 19 May 2020, the fourth webinar saw engagement from about 5,000 viewers on the CCA’s social media platforms, along with the registered participants on Zoom.
The lockdown situation in many Asian countries has impacted the overall well-being of children, although their physical health was not directly affected by the COVID-19 virus up to this point. The secondary effects of the global pandemic – in particular, its socio-economic consequences – could, however, catastrophically affect all children.
The General Secretary of the CCA, Dr Mathews George Chunakara, moderated the virtual conference. In his opening remarks, he pointed out that the needs of children amidst the pandemic have been invisibilised. It is vital to address their unique and specific needs and affirm them as individuals in their own right.
“The impact of COVID-19 is critical and could permanently damage the well-being of generations to come; hence, a multi-sectoral response must be put in place to uphold their rights and affirm their dignity; the urgency of ensuring their well-being and development are essential parameters to safeguard future generations as the basic quality of life should be the right of all children,” said the CCA General Secretary.
Rachel Harvey, UNICEF Regional Advisor on Child Protection at the East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, reiterated that although children under the age of 18 were not as directly impacted by the virus as adults, a majority of children have been affected by containment measures and the so-called ‘secondary impact’ of COVID-19. Speaking of the increased risk of children’s exposure to abuse and violence, she said, “Children have the right to be protected from all forms of abuse, violence, and exploitation. However, containment measures that have kept children at home – such as school closures and movement control – and the effects of these measures have increased the risk of abuse, violent discipline, and exploitation.” Containment measures have intensified the proximity of children to their abusers, while simultaneously cutting off opportunities for children to seek refuge outside of their homes.
Harvey also highlighted the heightened risks of already-vulnerable groups of children, such as children with disabilities, children affected by migration, children in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, children living and working on the street, and children in detention, as they struggled to access health, education and support services, and encountered increased chances of violence, abuse, and exploitation.
John Pattiwael, the Coordinator of the Asian Advocacy Network on Dignity and Rights of Children (AANDRoC), a CCA-initiated ecumenical platform, spoke of the ‘new normal’ that children now had to cope with under COVID-19, given the fact that their physical contact and social interaction with others was greatly inhibited. He also emphasised the plight of an extremely marginalised and neglected set of children – children in conflict with the law – who lacked sufficient legal representation and had no access to formal education, social services, and pastoral care. He encouraged churches to devise new forms of pastoral care for families susceptible to domestic violence and increase their access to aid in collaboration with other stakeholders.
Eule Rico Bonganay, Secretary-General of the Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns, brought to attention the myriad ways in which services were actively provided for children in partnership with churches and other CSOsin the Philippines. The churches and CSOs, he said, were active in advocacy with the government and in providing support to communities in need. As the government’s response was slow and inadequate, several thousands of children who were in already vulnerable conditions were left deprived even further.
Bonganay spoke of the children suffering non-COVID related illnesses and those with disabilities who could not access medical care given the military-style lockdown imposed in the country. There were widespread violations of children’s rights and instances of grave and inhumane treatment meted out to children who did not adhere to curfew hours.
Sharmila Sekarajasekaran, Chairperson of Voice of the Children in Malaysia, elaborated upon the conditions of those children in conflict with the law, who were confined to detention centres and remand homes. There was a push from civil society organisations to facilitate the release of such children. The government’s response was sporadic and simplistic, focusing only on visible concerns such as the immediate provision of healthcare and food. Given the ‘shrinking of civil space’, it was even more critical to ensure that the needs of children and their families were met. She spoke of the necessity of CSOs and FBOs to reinvent themselves and create task forces to help them adapt to the changing situation.
Rev. Kim Minji, from the Human Rights Centre of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), shared the initiatives taken by Korean churches to ensure the nourishment of children’s spiritual lives during the COVID-19 crisis. Providing the rationale that the ‘protection of children’s rights is directly related to upholding the human rights of the guardian’, the NCCK has been providing specialised care for families. A unique ‘COVID Human Rights’ network was set up by the collaborative efforts of over 100 civil society organisations to guarantee the rights of children and other minority groups.
Stella Dharshini, from the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, shared information on the concrete steps, measures, and actions taken by the churches in Sri Lanka to ensure the care of children amidst the pandemic. Children’s issues were addressed and novel forms of education and dissemination of information were introduced to ensure the spiritual welfare of children. This, she said, also addressed the social alienation that children faced due to the sudden and abrupt lockdown situation in the country.
A special segment in the webinar focused specifically on the mental health needs of children. Rachel Harvey pointed out the nuances involved in estimating the impact of the crisis. “The mental health of children and young people has been impacted by the fear of them or their family members contracting the virus, the effects of the containment measures, and increased stress in their family. This has been worsened by the lack of peer support, limited contact with their friends, and the undermining of the capacity of their parents to provide nurturing care and support,” she elaborated.
Registered participants of the webinar, as well as viewers who joined through live-streaming, expressed concerns about the increased risk of online exploitation, grooming, and cyber-bullying that children were exposed to as education services were shifted online in this time of lockdowns. It was necessary to make the online world as safe as possible for children, just as organisations have done for the offline world. Governments, regulators, internet service providers, and social media companies were called upon to step up and fulfil their primary role in ensuring that virtual learning platforms were safe, harmful content was rapidly identified and removed, and cross-border cooperation between justice actors was enhanced so that perpetrators were held to greater accountability.
It was of greater importance, however, that children themselves were informed, equipped, and empowered with the ‘knowledge, skills, and resilience’ to keep themselves safe in the virtual world. Participants also highlighted the potential of churches to equip parents and caregivers with the necessary tools and technical expertise needed to monitor the wellbeing of children online.
The panellists recommended a multi-level and holistic response to structure the actions of the churches and FBOs in the form of (a) care and guidance for families, (2) strong collaborations with CSOs and intergovernmental agencies, and (3) advocacy with governments, to ensure that all children – be they the ones confined to their homes, or those without homes (such as refugees and migrants) – were taken care of, with no child left behind.
In his concluding remarks, Dr Mathews George Chunakara said that as the crisis deepens, family stress-levels also are rising, and children confined at homes are both victims and witnesses of increasing levels of domestic violence and abuse. Besides, increasing unemployment shrinks family finances, which in turn triggers abuse and violence within families with children often ending up as victims.
He added, “This virtual platform hosted and facilitated by CCA has served as a fruitful exercise to understand the profound impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on children across Asia. The challenges future generations will face far exceed the COVID-19 pandemic, and the hidden impacts must be revealed and immediately tackled to uphold the dignity and rights of children. Churches, FBOs, and CSOs must collectively strive to accompany the most vulnerable of our society during and after the present global crisis.”
The CCA has scheduled other webinars in the upcoming weeks which will focus on pertinent issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and its repercussions. The next webinar on ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Women: Vital Needs and Post-Crisis Recovery’ will be held on 21 May 2020 (Thursday) from 12:00–14:00 Bangkok (Thailand) time. The webinar following that will be ‘Food Security: Will the world face more deaths due to hunger or COVID-19?’ (28 May 2020).
The Reports of CCA’s previous webinars: