“When COVID-19 came in, as the older child at home I had to go with my mother to wash clothes and fetch water for people to earn money since school had stopped and there was not enough food and essential commodities at home. At this time I don’t think I can go back to school because I have to look for money to cater for my siblings’ education,” Seventeen-year-old Jane narrates. 

By Edith Sifuna

At the beginning of 2020, World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern and has since caused widespread fears and strains on different systems worldwide. Different guidelines and directives have been put up by different countries, Uganda inclusive, to curb down its spread and as such have affected many systems, children’s rights and welfare being the most affected.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on Children’s rights, majorly their right to an adequate standard of living, right to protection from child labor and right to education among others. This health crisis has aggravated many of the main social and economic catalysts of children’s rights abuse such as limited access to education, early pregnancies, child marriages and poverty. 

This means, as we celebrate this year’s Day of the African Child under the theme, “30 years after the adoption of the Charter accelerate the implementation of Agenda 2040 for an Africa fit for Children”, as economies are shutting down and stay-at-home orders are becoming the new normal, the Government of Uganda needs to come up with strategies to address the unspoken damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to children’s rights.  

The pandemic has disrupted access to reproductive health services and information hence exposing many girls to unwanted pregnancies during the lockdown. Most young people have had sexual encounters either consensual or non-consensual, and due to their inability to access reproductive health services, they have ended up pregnant exposing them to dangers of early marriages and other birth complications such as fistula, unsafe abortions and or death.

It is expected that 13 million more child marriages could take place by 2030 which would have otherwise been managed. Child marriages are not only a violation of girls’ human rights and their rights as children, but are also characterized by sexual gender-based violence from their partners. The pandemic has disrupted all efforts intended to end child marriages and this calls for Government’s intervention to implement and strengthen effective child-friendly national legislative, policy and institutional frameworks addressing such challenges as per Agenda 2040. 

The economic pressure has caused such a huge economic burden for a country like Uganda, most vulnerable communities/ families have resorted to forcing their girls who are pregnant into marriage due to income constraints, perceiving them as financial burdens rather than children with a future to realize and rights to uphold and protect. 

Furthermore, the closure of schools/learning institutions due to COVID-19 pandemic has greatly interjected the education for many children, especially the girl child. Many of them will not be able to return to school as a result of increasing pressure to work and meet individual or family needs, let alone stigma for pregnant girls/ young mothers attending school, while others have lost contact with the education system, especially those from vulnerable communities with no option of distance/ e-learning.

When President Yoweri Museveni ordered schools closed on March 18, 2020, this further contributed to an increase in child labour. The pandemic resulted into a massive closure and unprecedented loss of jobs and loss of income in many families introducing many children to the workforce characterized by hazardous and exploitative conditions for survival. Although the Government of Uganda came up with a strategy to distribute food items, most families did not receive any COVID-19 relief and those who received it, it did not sustain them for long. According to the International Labour Organization, the number of children in child labour decreased by approximately 94 million between 2000 and 2016, representing a drop of 38 per cent. A rise in child labour was therefore an inevitable consequence of the pandemic as children become primary bread winners for their families after losing a care giver or their care giver losing a source of income. 

We therefore call upon Government and duty bearers to prioritize children’s rights by protecting them against any challenges that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic such as sexual exploitation and abuse including inducement, coercion or encouragement to engage in sexual activities and customary/ cultural practices that are harmful to their wellbeing, health, education and socio-economic development. 

Measures to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic should be put in place such as increasing chances for pupils to stay in school and access to health related information on reproductive health and rights. Keeping girls out of child/early marriages will boost the country’s/communities economic growth saving them on resources and pressure on the health sector that would otherwise be used to manage the effects of early pregnancies such as maternal and infant mortality. 

It is therefore important that the Government of Uganda implements Agenda 2040 whose main objective is to restore the dignity of the African child and establish long-term strategies that will contribute towards sustaining and protecting children’s rights in Africa. This is strongly emphasized in aspiration 2, 6, 7 and 9 of the Agenda 2040 where; Governments need to put in place effective child-friendly national legislative, policy and institutional frameworks; ensure that every child fully benefits from quality education; that every child is protected against violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse; and that every child is free from the impact of armed conflicts and other disasters or emergency situations respectively.   

Ms Sifuna is a Programme Officer in the Campaigns, Partnerships and Networks programme at CEHURD.

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