CHIANG MAI: A virtual consultation organised by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) with the participation of a representative group of experts from across Asia recommended, “The unique challenges and needs that children and their families are facing given the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis must be identified and addressed through special church ministries, pastoral care, and psycho-social support.”
“Pastoral care must also be extended to strengthen relationships between children and parents/caregivers by intervening in cases of domestic violence, abuse, and conflict under the extreme stress caused by the pandemic. Special considerations and accommodations must be made for children with no access to technology under lockdown and for children with disabilities. Such pastoral care must entail the creation of safe spaces for children to share their stories and experiences through different mediums,” opined the consultation.
The Regional Consultation on “Upholding the Dignity and Rights of Children in a ‘New Normal’ Era” held on 29–30 April 2021, was organised as part of the CCA’s Asia Advocacy Network on the Dignity and Rights of Children (AANDRoC).
Thirty-eight specially invited experts in the field of child rights and protection who attended the consultation suggested that no child was to be left behind in pandemic recovery and emphasised the necessity of urgent and innovative pastoral care and support for children through special church ministries.
In his opening address, the General Secretary of the CCA Dr Mathews George Chunakara stated that the spread of COVID-19 had forced millions of children across the world to continue their education from their homes, thus experiencing a ‘new normal’ in this context as well.
“The impacts of the global health pandemic are evident and have revealed the vulnerabilities and challenges as well as the denial of the rights and dignity of today’s children in most Asian countries. These serve as an indicator for all of us to carefully consider the steps that we need to take, especially to address the concerns of children, given that they are forced to continually live in environments that are confining and constricting,” stated Dr Mathews George Chunakara.
Lucio V. Sarandrea, a Child Rights expert from the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, in a presentation on “Challenges to child rights protection in the new normal era” said that it was critical to enforce child safeguarding mechanisms to respond to the crisis, improve current circumstances, and prevent such deteriorations from re-occurring in the future. This was to ensure that no child was left behind.
Mr Sarandrea highlighted the complex situations of “digital gap” the “educational gap”, and the “transportation gap” that children were facing.
He also suggested updating the means of remote assistance, from old-fashioned child hotlines to leveraging social media as spaces to reach out, provide psychological support/assistance, and even as a means to report abuse.
“Children are our present; they face today’s realities,” said Mr Sarandrea, adding that children must be taken seriously and must be listened to.
World Vision International representatives Alodia Santos and Eu-Lee Chng facilitated a joint session that focused on “Child rights protection and challenges to children’s education in a safe environment in a new normal era”. They stated that the constant flux of “lock and lift” added to the stress children were feeling under the pandemic. They also suggested a “triangular ecosystem approach” with collaborations among community leaders (who lead educational services and support), educational institutions (that are equipped during the “lock and lift” scenarios), and parents (who support continued learning and protection).
The key priorities and areas of focus suggested by Ms Santos and Mr Chng included opening schools as safely as possible when restrictions ease; ensuring all children, especially the most vulnerable, return to school; helping children with learning loss; determining the most effective means of distance learning; and continuing the empowerment of homes as venues of playful and child-centred learning.
Fr Biju P. Thomas from the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India offered a model for child mentoring based on the childhood of Jesus. He situated Jesus’ childhood as a process of learning through wisdom and knowledge, obedience, and experience.
“As Jesus experienced physical, mental, spiritual, and social growth, we must strive to replicate the balanced and complete growth of Jesus for all children,” said Fr Thomas.
Pastor Hazel J. Salatan from the Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines shared experiences on “Pastoral ministries in a new normal context among children and families” and suggested that external stresses caused by the pandemic could result in domestic abuse, violence, and behavioural issues that children could potentially face in their homes.
“Every child has a story to tell, so listen to them,” thus emphasising the obligations to contextualise responses for children and communicating with them in their own “language”, said Pastor Salatan.
Rev. Dr Justitia Vox Dei Hattu from the Jakarta Theological Seminary in Indonesia conducted a workshop on “Developing a child-friendly curriculum”. She shared the principles of curriculum architecture, such as grounding the content in the needs of children; prioritising relevant content while also being flexible as different children had different capacities; providing spaces for children to connect with themselves and others; involving parents/guardians; and being holistic and inclusive.
The participants of the consultation offered the following detailed recommendations for the active engagement of Asian churches in ensuring the dignity and rights of children during and after the global COVID-19 pandemic:
The consultation was organised in the context of the grave direct and indirect consequences that children have had to grapple with because of the pandemic.