Across the globe, nine out of 10 children are in lockdown in their homes as part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools are closed, social services are disrupted and movement is curtailed as families shelter in their homes.
But for too many young girls, their homes are not safe places. Experience shows that during health emergencies, children—especially young girls—face increased risk of sexual exploitation and abuse.
We are already beginning to see a rise in domestic abuse during the shutdown, and experts predict that sexual abuse of children, especially young girls, is also going to increase as the crisis continues.
The Lockdown Leaves Young Girls Vulnerable to Sexual Abuse
As families are confined and young girls spend more time at home, they are more vulnerable to prolonged sexual abuse without the interruption of school and other normal daily activities.
Additionally, abusers may feel more secure to act with increased impunity as access to social services dwindle and external interactions are further restricted. And with the current situation curtailing young girls’ ability to seek refuge outside their homes, the likelihood of them escaping from their abusers is bleak.
For girls living in poverty, the breakdown of basic services in many communities may also lead to heightened pressure to engage in transactional sex with older men in exchange for financial or in-kind support, such as transportation, food or clothing.
In the United States—where one-third of girls are sexually abused by age 18, usually by a family member at home—reports of child abuse cases are already on the rise in Texas, and New York City is seeing a surge in visits to its domestic violence resource website.
Kenya’s Chief Justice recently reported a “significant spike” in sexual offenses across the country at the end of March—mostly perpetuated by close relatives and guardians.
In Bolivia, police have reported a daily average of 48 cases of violence against children, including sexual assault and rape, since the beginning of the lockdown.
And the threat of sexual abuse for young girls extends past the physical into the online sphere. The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) has warned of a coming rise in online child sexual abuse, sharing that there are at least 300,000 individuals in the UK who pose a sexual threat to children. Even worse, offenders are discussing opportunities to abuse children during the pandemic in online chats and forums.
School Closures Make Young Girls More Vulnerable to Abuse and Pregnancy
For millions of young girls, schools are a safe space where the watchful eyes of teachers and other adults identify signs of abuse and intervene in the lives of vulnerable girls.
In the United States, the majority of reports to child protective services come from educators, while in many other contexts girls’ clubs and similar activities deliberately create safe spaces for teenage girls.
When governments close schools to slow the spread of disease, they also inadvertently create a breeding ground for sexual abuse that leads to teenage pregnancy.
As a result of the school closures in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, for example, teenage pregnancies increased by up to 65 percent in some communities as over 18,000 girls became pregnant. Prior to the closures, 11,000 of the pregnant girls had been enrolled in school and girls’ enrollment decreased by 16 percent when schools reopened. A study by Save the Children reveals that for most girls, their pregnancies were a result of being outside the protective environment of their schools.
Rising Economic Uncertainty Increases the Incidence of Child Marriages
During times of economic insecurity, such as what we’re now seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic, households and families often react with negative coping strategies such as substance abuse, increased debt and transactional sex.
Another is child marriage, which can be seen as a last resort during economic shocks and limited access to basic services.
Faced with the challenge of providing for daughters—and often with limited access to health, education and protection services—some families are likely to marry their girl children off to older men in an attempt to gain some measure of financial security. With the COVID-19 pandemic predicted to push half a billion people into poverty, there will likely be a resulting surge in child marriages in many parts of the world.
Girls who are married as children face a host of negative outcomes, including poorer health, teenage pregnancy, reduced lifetime earnings and dropping out of school. These outcomes extend beyond the individual consequences faced by the girls, to losses borne by their families, communities and countries as a result of child marriage.
At national and global levels, lost earnings and persistent poverty linked to child marriage result in lost economic potential amounting to over US $26 billion annually.
Now Is the Time to Address the Root Causes of Violence
COVID-19 does not cause sexual violence against young girls, teenage pregnancy or child marriage. These outcomes are driven by existing gender inequalities and harmful gender norms that are exacerbated in times of crisis by economic shocks, forced confinement and increased stress. And they can be mitigated by a range of potential interventions.
For girls who are not in school, engaging them in productive activities with other girls in their age group can limit time spent around older men. In cases where girls are receiving online tutoring, educators can be trained to watch out for and report girls demonstrating unusual behavior.
Ensuring that girls, their families and their communities receive access to appropriate information is also crucial for mitigating sexual abuse. This can range from providing information on available support services for potential victims of sexual violence to providing targeted information to boys about appropriate sexual behaviors towards girls in this lockdown period.
Other actions include ensuring pregnant girls can continue their education; providing economic support to families with integrated sensitization on the importance of girls’ education; and engaging men and boys in addressing harmful gender norms and recognizing the value of girls’ education.
Taken together, these interventions cannot only address near-term scenarios, but also the underlying causes and root problems—and spur greater wellbeing for girls and their families in both the near- and long-term.
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