YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – In Uganda, reports of child abuse have surged since the schools were closed on March 24 to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“The most commonly reported violations are child neglect and child rape. This is true both prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and at present,” said Michelle Ell, Uganda project director for the 4Children Project at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
4Children, or Coordinating Comprehensive Care for Children, is a 6-year project which began in 2014 aimed at improving the health and well-being of vulnerable children, especially those affected by HIV and AIDS.
The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, notes that many children are having one meal a day, which often lacks the necessary nutrients for childhood development.
The UN agency says children around Uganda will likely face increasing threats to their safety and well-being – including mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers
Ell said she hasn’t received any data based on the perpetrators in cases reported since the COVID-19 outbreak, but noted that for child neglect cases, the parents or caregivers are the ones responsible for their children’s care.
“For child sexual abuse, however, historically the perpetrators are typically people who are known by the children. Often the perpetrators are neighbors, fathers, stepfathers and other caregivers,” she said.
Ell told Crux there were many factors at play in causing the increase in abuse cases in the country.
“Due to the lockdown, some of the traditional coping mechanisms and support systems available to the most vulnerable children and families are not currently accessible,” she said. “For example, schools are closed, and churches are not holding services. Many of the trusted adult figures who often are able to detect early signs of abuse, and/or help families to cope with added stress, are out of reach during the lockdown.”
What follows are excerpts of Ell’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: There are reports that there has been a spike in child abuse cases in Uganda due to the coronavirus pandemic. How big is the increase, why is there a correlation with the COVID-19 crisis?
Ell: Makerere University, one of the leading universities in Uganda, carried out a review of child protection cases handled by government social workers in 30 districts (September to November 2019), which showed that government social workers handled 314 cases in a three-month period. Since that assessment, Catholic Relief Services’s 4Children System Strengthening Project has been collaborating closely with government social workers in order to work more with police to identify cases, and to improve their case management practices and documentation. In part, our technical assistance to the government has resulted in more cases being handled by social workers, which would show an increase in documented cases. However, in reviewing the case files, we do see clear links to the stresses and challenges due to the lockdown. In the first three weeks of the lockdown, government social workers handled nearly three times as many cases as they handled during the period of the three-month study.
What kinds of abuses do children suffer?
The most commonly reported violations are child neglect and child rape. This is true both prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and at present.
Who are the perpetrators?
We haven’t received any data based on the cases reported since the COVID-19 outbreak. For child neglect cases, the parents or caregivers are the ones responsible for their children’s care. For child sexual abuse, however, historically the perpetrators are typically people who are known by the children. Often the perpetrators are neighbors, fathers, stepfathers and other caregivers.
How does such abuse affect children, especially vulnerable children?
Due to the lockdown, some of the traditional coping mechanisms and support systems available to the most vulnerable children and families are not currently accessible. For example, schools are closed, and churches are not holding services. Many of the trusted adult figures who often are able to detect early signs of abuse, and/or help families to cope with added stress, are out of reach during the lockdown.
When children face multiple stresses or abuse over time and do not have support to cope with or overcome these negative experiences, they experience what is known as ‘toxic stress’ which can have long-term negative consequences on their mental and physical health. These children are more likely to face other risks and vulnerabilities, such as mental health issues, dropping out of school, and engaging in risky behaviors that also make them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
CRS runs a 4Children project in Uganda. What are your doing to help?
On the 4Children Project, Catholic Relief Services is working closely with the government of Uganda by helping them to understand the upward trends and providing technical support to government social workers to handle complex cases. With the data that 4Children has been collecting, the Line Ministry responsible for children’s issues was able to advocate for inclusion of government social workers on all COVID-19 District Task Teams.
In addition, when the national toll-free helpline had to close during the first two weeks of the lockdown due to health and safety concerns for staff, Catholic Relief Services was able to provide face masks, hand-sanitizer and other basic materials to enable them to resume their operations. With curfews and limited transportation options, 4Children is continuing to provide mobile data to enable social workers to handle cases remotely, using email and mobile phones to follow-up on cases and link children and families to key services and support.
The 4Children project is set to end by 2020. What would you say you have achieved in terms of making life better for children in Uganda?
Key areas of impact include equipping all district social workers with access to the child protection laws and policies in the country. The project helped the government to develop and roll-out an App that they are continuing to update with new information. Monitoring data shows that government social workers are not only using the App, but they are applying the child protection laws and policies to promote the safeguarding of children because they now have access to the law and the protections that must be afforded to all children.
One particularly strong example around this was the case of a government officer trying to argue a case in court. The Chief Magistrate was referring to an outdated statute, but the officer was able to use her App to provide the Magistrate with the latest statute and she won the case in favor of the child. Another important contribution is in the regulation of social work training.
The 4Children project supported the National Council for Higher Education to work with all universities in the country to develop minimum standards and core competencies for social work education. This step ensures that the next generation of social workers in the country will have the key skills and competencies needed to carry out their professional duties.