School closures and the economic downturn as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are taking the biggest toll on the world’s most marginalized children.
The organization Save the Children released the largest global COVID-19 survey of its kind as part of the “Protect a Generation” report on Wednesday. The report revealed that the poorest children have been most at risk during the crisis and have disproportionately lost access to education, healthcare, and food.
Save the Children asked 25,000 children and adults how the pandemic is affecting their lives and highlighted the ways the crisis has widened gender and wealth inequalities. The organization wants to see more response efforts that prioritize children’s needs.
“To protect an entire generation of children from losing out on a healthy and stable future, the world needs to urgently step up with debt relief for low-income countries and fragile states so they can invest in the lives of their children,” Janti Soeripto, Save the Children president and CEO, said in a press release issued to Global Citizen.
“The needs of children and their opinions need to be at the center of any plans to build back what the world has lost over the past months, to ensure that they will not pay the heaviest price.”
Save the Children estimates that 9.7 million children will not be going back to school this year, and the new survey suggests many of the children missing out are girls living in poverty.
Less than 1% of the children from poorer households who participated in the survey had access to remote learning, and of those who didn’t classify themselves as poor, only 19% had access.
Of the girls surveyed, 63% reported having more responsibilities compared to 43% of boys. The girls reported that chores got in the way of learning at over double the rate of boys — 23% compared to 10%. Caring for siblings fell on 52% of the girls surveyed compared to 42% of boys.
School closures have also threatened child safety. Since schools shut down, violence at home doubled and reached 17%, compared to 8% before. Violence increased almost three times more in children’s homes where parents lost income.
The majority of children surveyed now face new challenges to education — two-thirds of children reported that they had no contact with teachers during lockdowns. In East and Southern Africa, 8 in 10 children reported that they barely learned or didn’t learn at all during the pandemic.
While school fees have always presented barriers for families living in poverty, the pandemic has only heightened this challenge. Roughly 37% of poorer families reported struggling to cover the costs of learning materials, compared to 26% of families who didn’t classify themselves as poor.
Survey participant Priscovia, a 17-year-old from Zambia, called on leaders to invest in education.
“We ask for governments to spend more money to make sure that we can continue learning while at home by providing radios, TVs, and internet learning,” she told Save the Children, according to the press release.
“They must make sure that children in rural areas and from poor families also get to learn. We want to see mobile libraries passing in our communities delivering books for us to learn.”
Economic hardship is making it difficult for families living in poverty to afford several basic needs, the report showed.
Poorer households were more likely to experience income loss (82%) compared to those not classified as poor (70%).
More than half of the households surveyed, 62%, said they had a hard time affording a range of nutritious meals for their families during the pandemic. The majority of households who lost their incomes, 93%, now have limited access to health care as well, and 9 out of 10 had difficulties accessing health services.
Save the Children is urging governments to put children’s well-being first.
The report stressed that children need protection against abuse and violence during lockdowns and after, and require both mental and psychosocial support.
On the education front, the organization wants leaders to ensure that children who are out of school have access to remote learning, introduce initiatives that ensure children don’t get left behind, and allow all children to continue their education when the pandemic is over.
The organization is also calling for future pandemic preparedness that prioritizes the most marginalized communities and includes social protection and nutrition programs.