By Andiwo Obondoh and Margaret Wawira
East Africa’s three waves of covid-19 in 2020/2021 have resulted in a lot of stress and immense strain on child rights civil society organisations and their programmes. The pandemic impacted all aspects of these organisations’ work – from running programmes, planning finances, delivering services to children, ensuring protection, to coordinating staff on how they collaborate with partners. The impact of covid-19 has been widespread and destabilizing. Sector players acknowledge that they were unprepared to cope with the disruption caused by the pandemic that resulted to disruption of funding, operations, and activities. As the pandemic continues to ravage the region, their main concerns are food insecurity, limited access to education, lost incomes, child protection and gender-based violence.
Funding for programmes and operations was slashed affecting operations while a lot of funding was diverted towards mitigating covid-19. The uncertainty of the situation has made it difficult for CSOs to plan and deliver their services and programmes. CSOs have thus called for urgent financial, technical and policy support to continue essential service provision, maintain prevention programming, protect their staff and beneficiaries, avoid the risk of burnout, and prevent closures of their organizations due to the economic crisis arising from the pandemic.
The most visible impact revolved around operations and programs. As many countries-imposed measures such as national lockdowns to restrict movement of people and curb infections, CSOs experienced several operational difficulties. Restriction of movement culminated into reduced face-to-face interactions with the communities they serve. As a result, some operations had to be either reduced or cancelled despite reportedly increased demand for the same services during the pandemic. CSOs had to introduce new ways or copying mechanisms such as working from home while intensifying and innovating new online services. This broke the supply chain, and, in many instances, workload was greatly increased for the few available staff.
Nevertheless, covid-19 related challenges also created new opportunities and innovative ways of working in the sector as Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and child rights activists had a chance to rethink how they tackle crises.
CSOs are introducing new ways to undertake their activities and mitigate threats imposed by covid-19. For instance, members have had to work from home, formulating new work-from-home arrangements. However, some of the solution’s present challenges. For example, working from home requires elaborate planning, which CSOs did not have in place before covid-19. Not everybody has a computer or internet connection, moreover, home is not a conducive working environment for most staff.
At a time when national financial and administrative capacity have completely been overwhelmed, and referral systems greatly stretched, CSOs have had to rapidly adapt to new roles and fill the necessary gaps. They have been able to collect data to amplify the voices of vulnerable groups to inform responses to covid 19, and document experiences and make data available so that local and national response efforts can be informed by realities on the ground. Overall, CSOs-led support systems have been acting as first respondents and filling gaps where the governments are either unable or unwilling to provide services. Although covid – 19 has really shattered lives, opportunities are emerging that could begin to shape the way the sector operates in future. It is a learning period for everyone in Eastern Africa and everybody is just getting to learn how to handle covid-19. From our assessments and analysis, we have outlined several lessons which have been learned throughout this pandemic by CSOs in EACRN member countries. In order to find solutions to some of the challenges highlighted, use the lessons to inform interventions or sharpen approaches, EACRN members and other CSOs are expected to employ adaptive programming approaches which will allow learning and adaptation throughout their programs in the coming years.
Loss of income and caregivers has forced many children to turn to the streets to beg for food, take hazardous jobs to support their families, or see their families split up in search of food, leaving them alone, unprotected and exposed to violence, abuse, and exploitation. The pandemic poses significant risks as there have been an increase in illness and deaths from other preventable and treatable disease when health services are overwhelmed by covid-19 cases. This has come at the expense of routine healthcare as is already evident in some countries in the region with some essential health services such as hospital deliveries and outpatient visits for children under five dropping significantly.
“Not only are children and young people contracting covid-19, but they are also among its most severely impacted victims. Unless we act now to address the pandemic’s impacts on children, the echoes of covid-19 will permanently damage our shared future,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director in a study conducted by EACRN.
Evidence on the status of the learning environment across the region shows that most public schools contend with inadequate facilities, dilapidated infrastructure, and crowded spaces, making obedience to covid -19 protocols quite impossible.
A teenager aged 19 says, ‘‘Some of my peers have refused to resume school, instead they started small businesses (petty trade) like boda boda, car wash and hawking to make ends meet and this means they will miss the benefit of education’.
There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the impact of covid-19 on children goes beyond the discontinuation of learning. Other effects on learners ranged from psychosocial destabilization, lack of proper nutrition especially in poverty-stricken places like Turkana County in Kenya, and exposure to domestic violence, and even broken family units, resulting from the effects of domestic violence on learners’ parents, increased risk of dropping out of school more so for children in rural & urban poor households, among others.
Long before the covid -19 crisis, the financial situation of CSOs was weak and uncertain across the region. With the onset and subsequent spread of the pandemic, child rights organizations experienced reduced or complete loss of funding. Few had any reserves to see them through this crisis. Thus, lack of funding has had a devastating impact on the sustainability of many CSOs. The financial ramifications of covid – 19 for the sector are huge, with global economic uncertainty, cancellations of fundraising events and delays or loss of new grants.
This article highlights findings from a study on the impact of covid-19 on child rights programming in Eastern Africa, commissioned by EACRN and led by the Centre for Research & Innovations in East Africa (CRI-EA). According to respondents interviewed, the figure below confirms that the greatest impact of COVID19 was on right to health, WASH & food; followed by protection from exploitation, protection from violence, protection from sexual abuse and finally education.
In conclusion, COVID19 has impacted billions of lives around the globe. Governments, individuals, businesses, and civil society organisations are battling to keep children in school, save lives, support families, and keep businesses/organisations afloat. The regional response to the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19 needs to continue to be immediate, appropriate, effective, and ethical to ensure that civil society organisations can sustain their vital role on the front line of advocating for the rights of children.