For decades, War Child UK has been working to protect, educate, and stand up for children in conflict zones around the world. But now, children are facing a unique set of challenges as a result of the global pandemic. War Child UK has been on the ground providing children and families with lifesaving food and hygiene kits in these extraordinary times. They’re also working to keep children safe and protected from the increased risk of abuse and exploitation that a crisis causes, as well as providing life-saving information about the coronavirus.
To better understand the deeper impacts of COVID-19 on children, War Child UK conducted a series of interviews with children and their families in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Iraq, and Yemen. They focused on counties that have been affected by conflict, have populations that are reliant on humanitarian assistance, and are especially vulnerable to this pandemic. The resulting briefing features stories of children and their families to illustrate the impacts of these challenges.
For the second part of our In depth with series, we talked to Hannah Hyde, Senior Partnerships Manager at War Child UK, about key takeaways from their research.
One consistent finding through interviews across all four countries was the shortage of resources and lack of access to basic necessities. As the quantity of available food on the market is decreasing, costs of essential items are increasing. Coupled with an increase in lost sources of income, families are struggling to afford basic necessities.
Since COVID-19, one 14-year-old interviewee has been working as a street vendor in Iraq to support his family financially. His family hasn’t been able to purchase the recommended hygiene products due to limited resources, but this isn’t his biggest concern. “I hope that they will find a cure for this epidemic because the cases are increasing every day in my country but my only concern is that as a family we cannot meet our daily needs,” he says.
“For poor families who rely on day labor, social distancing measures and lockdowns will mean running out of money for food and other basics very quickly,” says Hyde. “Millions could be facing starvation even before the virus takes hold. As we’re seeing stricter measures come into many of the countries where we work, millions of people have lost their jobs. People are extremely worried as there’s not enough government support to help the huge numbers of people who can’t make a living. The consequences for children are that they fall out of education and are at much greater risk of child labor, abuse, and other forms of exploitation.”
Education is another area that has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting almost 70% of the world’s student population, according to UNESCO. Not only is education a crucial component of a child’s growth, it has also been a protective factor in many instances. Education reduces the likelihood of children being subjected to abuse, child marriage, exploitation, and recruitment to armed groups. With schools remaining closed due to COVID-19, there is a higher chance that children fall behind and not return to school. For those who are economically challenged, returning to school may not even be an option if or when they reopen.
“For children in war zones, education is the key to a better now, and a better future,” says Hyde. “An educated population is less likely to be radicalized and it can help break the continuous cycle of conflict.”
Possibly the most serious and longest lasting effect of the pandemic on children is the impact on mental health. Almost one in four children living under COVID-19 lockdowns are reported to be dealing with feelings of anxiety, with many at risk of long-term psychological distress, including depression. Children living in conflict zones are especially vulnerable because they live in challenging home environments, lack social support, and are a part of families who are already facing poverty.
“With COVID-19, restrictions on movement disrupt children’s routines and cause lack of understanding, fear, and uncertainty as to when life will go back to normal,” says Hyde. “This is particularly concerning for vulnerable children who have experienced the trauma of war and have a history of anxiety, mental health problems, and who lack access to trusted adults they can talk to.”
While the pandemic has impacted lives all around the world, it’s causing far greater damage in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. For example, in the Central African Republic, one of the countries where War Child UK operates, there are only four ventilators to serve the population of the entire country.
“By supporting those in war torn communities with less advanced medical infrastructure, limited access to hygiene products, education, and protection, we’re helping those communities become more resilient,” says Hyde. “And to beat a global pandemic, we need a global response. If the countries that are least able to cope are not supported by the rest of the world, not only will we face one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as millions are forced into unemployment, poverty, and starvation, but we also run the risk of the effects of the pandemic lasting for even longer.”
When asked what gives Hyde hope for the future of the children in these countries, she says “If we can continue to prioritize the education, protection, and emotional well-being of children in these countries, we can help safeguard their future. We’re confident that with the right kind of targeted support, these children won’t be defined by their pasts, but rather we can help them shape a brighter future. It gives us hope to see the impact of our programs on the children we work with. Seeing them smile, laugh, and play again after their unimaginably tragic childhoods is incredibly humbling, and motivates us all to work as hard as we can for children affected by conflict.”
To find out how you can help support War Child UK’s efforts, visit their website.