Children are especially vulnerable during pandemic. In Georgia, one in five children lives in poverty and undernourishment.
Health experts claim that children are believed to be relatively safe group and they get infected with Covid-19 less than adults. However, the challenges related to pandemic might have a long-term detrimental effect on children. Therefore, safeguarding their interests should be a priority issue during this time. The harmful effects are different. They are related to children’s education, their mental health, family unity, labor rights, child marriages, violence, child exploitation, etc. The conditions in quarantine facilities, where the special needs of minors are neglected, are especially worth mentioning. There are also child-care and penitentiary facilities where the risks for children are increased.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has developed recommendations calling on the countries to pay special attention1 to the needs of children. The Committee urges countries to set as a priority the unwavering protection of the basic rights of children, such as health, education, physical and mental safety, protection from violence, etc. The crisis should not hinder the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the countries. And, the policies should be developed primarily prioritizing the protection of the rights and needs of children.
Children should have unlimited access to available services which enable them to easily overcome crises and cope with the anxiety caused by isolation. In this regard, it is recommended to pay more attention to the children in penitentiaries, they should be able to spend more time with families during the pandemic, and most importantly, governments should listen to children and take their views into account before making any decisions in regard to tackling the pandemic-related difficulties.
The needs of children were considerably ignored during pandemic management and preventive measures in Georgia. The problems were revealed in many sectors. Health, education or social protection policies were undetermined, which raised many concerns, because the measures enacted by the government were reasonable and bearable for adults, but harmful for children.
The issues discussed below were particularly challenging in Georgia, especially at the beginning of the pandemic.
Global studies show that children are at least two times more likely to live in poverty than adults.2 Up to 663 million children worldwide live in the families which lack basic needs for food, clothing, clean water and more.
In Georgia, according to recent study, children are more at risk of poverty than other groups. Every fifth child lives in extreme poverty and is starving. The country still lacks comprehensive, child oriented social protection system which will help families to deal with unexpected shocks. Many vulnerable families are left without services. Primarily, these are the children with disabilities, children victims of violence, children from ethnic minority communities and children from poor families.3 Low income and hunger are directly linked to increasing the risks of chronic diseases in children, which consecutively increase the risks of being infected with COVID-19 and got complications.
Considering extreme social hardship of the population, the government’s assistance which included one-time allowance of 200 GEL per child and a subsidy for utility bills for several months, was insufficient in pandemic circumstances.
Forced marriage of girls
The risks of child labor and forced marriages are increasing in poor families during pandemic. Child labor is a common practice in times of economic crisis, especially when government policies are not focused on children and family empowerment. Every year, 12 million children get married before the age of 18 worldwide. Similar to child labor, forced child marriages are mainly linked to financial crises. Child marriages are often associated with financial profit for the families and that is why the practice is particularly motivating in times of crisis.
Georgia is no exception in this regard. The malign practice of child marriages was an issue even before the pandemic. It is logical that the problem increased during isolation and financial crisis. Here, as in case of domestic violence, the children are being damaged. The issue is not included in the government’s crisis management policy and the official response is the same as ever: “the number of reports did not increase”.
The right to education
Education and schools are not just means to acquire academic knowledge, but also the best opportunity for social and emotional development of children. The shutdown of schools at the first and now, at the second phase of the pandemic, resulted in isolation of children in their homes, which in its turn had a negative impact on the emotional state of children. The effect was disproportionate to those children who already had some barriers in formal education institutions. These are the children with disabilities, the children from dysfunctional families where there is a violent environment, the children from poor families, etc. The only solution offered by the government was online classes which proved to be ineffective for thousands of children. For example, vulnerable and low-income families were unable to provide online classes for their children due to the lack of computers and internet. As for the children with special needs, the online space was inaccessible and unusable for them due to their different needs.
The government was aware about these difficulties during the first phase of the pandemic, but the education policy have not changed at the second phase either. This increased the level of social exclusion of children and left thousands of children without education in Georgia.
Domestic violence against children is a problem which started long before the pandemic. But, isolation and social and economic difficulties have led to more violent relationships in the families and complicated the lives of those children, who had suffered from unfavorable family environment even before. Tensions in the families caused by job loss due to pandemic, low income and health issues have been considered as the major factors contributing to increased number of violence in the families – between the parents as well as between the parents and their children.
The closure of schools and the isolation of children in homes left many violent incidents unreported, because in majority of cases, and especially when children are being abused by their family members, they seek for help and assistance from teachers or other people outside the family. But, lockdown and isolation left children as well as women very vulnerable.
Referring to violence against women, UN Special Rapporteur called on the countries4 to take urgent measures since the risk of violence against women and children has been doubled during the time of pandemic. Georgian’s response turned out to be a denial of the problem and only referred to official date, according to which the number of reported cases during the pandemic has not increased. The approach of turning a blind eye to the problem leaves children and women in a violent environment unprotected.
Conditions in quarantine facilities
The interests of children were particularly neglected while developing the preventive policies against COVID-19 in Georgia. The enacted regulations were not adapted to the children, which led to further traumatization of children as well as their family members. The process of transferring citizens to quarantine facilities upon entering the country raised especially many concerns in this regard. The Government used standardized approach for everyone and disregarded the needs of children which led to many legal disputes against government. Children had to spend weeks in an isolated, unfamiliar environment, which increased pandemic-related stress and anxiety in them. The approach was particularly harmful to those children who were left without caregivers and children who were disabled. They needed an adapted, familiar environment, as well as therapeutic services, which were vital for them.
The civil sector had to sue to the court in order to protect some children and move them in an adequate environment. Partnership for Human Rights has facilitated a number of successful lawsuits and helped children and their families. But even this was not enough for the government to address the issues of children with special needs with particular care and attention during pandemic management and prevention. The current regulations still do not fully address the individual needs of children and their families.
Pandemic appeared to be the litmus test for many countries, including Georgia. The crisis revealed weaknesses in many sectors, especially in children health-care, social protection, education and protection from violence. None of the above-mentioned problems have been primarily caused by the pandemic in our country, but the crisis, due to the weakness of the system, has basically affected children, women and their families.
In the times of pandemic it is necessary to see the needs better, for example the importance of formal education, which is not just a way to gain knowledge, but is crucial for well-being of children; the importance of children integration into society, which is not a choice but a necessity for minors; the availability of sound social and healthcare systems, etc. In this regard, it is possible to turn the current crisis into a basis for systemic recovery of children.
Finally, to policy makers, the measures implemented for mitigation of the damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are not enough, it is critical to focus on long-term physical and mental safety of children and all the decisions today must be made with primary consideration of this principle.
Ana Abashidze, the Managing Director, Partnership for Human Rights