Children’s exposure to increased protection risks as a result of the COVID-19 crisis may be influenced through a number of pathways. In a direct way, the virus could result in loss of parental care due to death, illness or separation, thereby placing children at heightened risk for violence, neglect or exploitation. This could manifest as a result of the immediate situation and containment measures but could also stem from the economic crisis that may result from the current situation and families’ reduced capacity to care for children in the long-term. More indirectly, mitigating measures adopted by many countries to address the pandemic have resulted in disruptions to children’s everyday environments, routines, and relationships. What’s more, many of the prevention and control measures have resulted in disruptions to the reporting and referral mechanisms of child protection services, leaving many children and families vulnerable. Moreover, measures to contain the virus have affected delivery of vital support and treatment services as well as contact with informal support networks.

When it comes to violence, a number of factors related to confinement measures are likely to result in increased risk for children including heightened tensions in the household, added stressors placed on caregivers, economic uncertainty, job loss or disruption to livelihoods, and social isolation. Children may also increasingly witness intimate partner violence. During the crisis, identifying children at risk is inherently more challenging given that many adults who would typically recognize signs of abuse, such as teachers, childcare workers, coaches, extended family and community members and child and family welfare workers, are no longer in regular contact with children.

With the loss or reduction of household income, there may be an increased need or expectation for children to contribute to their families financially by engaging in work. This presents the potential for children to be exposed to hazardous or exploitative forms of work and could also contribute to gender imbalances within the family if girls are increasingly expected to perform household duties and chores.

Mitigating measures such as the closure of non-essential services is likely to threaten and derail access to birth registration services for many families. A birth certificate, obtained through the birth registration process, is proof of legal identity, and is the basis upon which children can establish a nationality, avoid the risk of statelessness and seek protection from violence and exploitation. Possession of a birth certificate is protective in many ways since proof of age is needed to help prevent child labour, child marriage and underage recruitment into the armed forces.

Children without parental or family care, including those living on the streets, in alternative care and those deprived of their liberty are especially vulnerable under the current circumstances. Most countries still lack accurate and reliable figures on the number, and characteristics, of children in such situations. The potential of being exposed to, or infected, by the virus in crowded settings is high given that physical distancing and other basic sanitation practices are often difficult to observe. For children in residential care, a lack of capacity and resources could result in a rapid closure of such facilities, with children being returned to families without proper preparation. The closure of facilities to outsiders is likely to result in limited oversight, which could lead to increased risk for neglect and violence. For children in street situations, access to help and support services is likely to be disrupted and even more challenging. Measures such as the closure of courts and the suspension of trials and proceedings, could result in the continued detention of children who might otherwise be released or placed in non-custodial alternatives.

While the pandemic’s impact on the number of children becoming child brides and grooms is not precisely known, experience shows that the circumstances created by this crisis may introduce risks for children. For example, child marriage is more common among poorer segments of the population, and pressures including a family’s economic burden and the desire to secure financial stability for daughters are often cited as reasons that parents choose to have girls marry at a young age. Thus, the unemployment crisis and economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic might bring more families to use child marriage as a coping mechanism. In addition, decisions about a girl’s education and marriage are often made in tandem, with an exit from education paired with entry into marriage; thus, school closures and the resulting interruption to girls’ education may hasten the arrangements for marriage.

What UNICEF is doing

We are at the very early stages of understanding how the coronavirus pandemic and similar public health crises affect child protection. Such gaps are compounded by deficits in statistical evidence more generally. It will be particularly challenging to track changes in levels of protection risks resulting from COVID-19, since most countries do not even have a reliable baseline.

That said, UNICEF is undertaking a number of activities to explore methods for estimating the potential impact of COVID-19 on a number of areas of child protection. For example, work is underway to explore possible impacts of the pandemic on the global burden of child marriage and on child labour. Finally, a study is being conducted to understand the potential impacts of COVID-19 on family violence through a variety of data sources that include social media platforms, household surveys and administrative records. The overall aim is to explore the feasibility of quantifying how the pandemic might impact the prevalence of certain forms of violence against children.

Resources on child protection and COVID-19

The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action: