Child protection has been a critical concern for development agencies across the globe. The term is used to describe a broad spectrum of issues concerning the safety and wellbeing of the child. Child Protection broadly describes philosophies, policies, standards, guidelines, and procedures to protect children from both intentional and unintentional harm.
For many civil society organizations working to promote child rights, child protection involves preventing and responding to specific situations where children are at greater risk of or subject to abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, discrimination, or deprivation of parental or other family care, with a view to upholding and protecting their rights.
The current situation is that of the coronavirus pandemic and the concern on child safety and health amidst this novel disease in Ghana. As a people, we cannot ignore the broader responsibilities of parents, institutions, and government towards child protection at this critical period of time.
Child protection in Ghana over the years has been very porous even as significant efforts are been continually undertaken by government and civil society and non-governmental organizations (CS &NGOs). United Nations Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) has been in the forefront in the enforcement of child rights and the promotion of child protection issues in Ghana. Yet, a lot is still to be done in that regard.
For instance, many children in Ghana are heavily affected by child abuse and molestation, sexual abuse of girls, child trafficking, domestic slavery of children especially orphans, child force marriages, child neglect, and worst forms of child labor. For instance, the International Labour Organization (ILO) declared that, about 152million children worldwide were involved in all kind of child labour as at 2019 and UNICEF estimated around 2 million Ghanaian children to be affected by worst forms of child labour.
Since the outbreak of what WHO declared as a global pandemic called Coronavirus in December 2019 (COVID 19), every aspect of life has been affected including the safety and education of children. PLAN International UK has recently revealed on their website, “Out of the total population of students enrolled in education globally, UNESCO estimates that over 89% are currently out of school because of Covid-19 closures.
This represents 1.54 billion children and youth enrolled in school or university, including nearly 743 million girls. Over 111 million of these girls are living in the world’s least developed countries where getting an education is already a struggle. These are contexts of extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and crisis where gender disparities in education are highest.
Plan International revealed that, in Mali, Niger and South Sudan alone — three countries with some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls — closures have forced over four (4) million girls out of school. For those girls that do not have easy access to education, the closure of schools and other educational settings in response to the Covid-19 pandemic will present a further barrier to learning, depriving girls of a protective environment and access to sources of life-saving information and psychosocial support.
As dropout rates rise following school closures, many girls may never return to school, further entrenching gender gaps in education, increasing the likelihood of child marriage and exploitation, and undermining girls longer term opportunities. This is particularly true for girls who become pregnant or married during the period of school closures”.
Ghana has a similar situation as many girls have been disadvantaged since history. Plan International Ghana has observed that the Coronavirus Disease pandemic in the country could have dire influence on teenage pregnancy and child marriage in the rural areas. It said the economic hardship that the pandemic has exerted on the people coupled with the closure of schools in the country could force parents to give off their children for marriage as an alternative source of income for the family ( www.ghanaweb.com ).
Reports indicated, “But the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the stark regional, social and economic inequalities in Ghana's educational system. Closing schools indefinitely has long been the reality for many high school students in northern Ghana, where educational facilities operate with limited infrastructure compared to those in the more affluent south. This has often manifested in high schools' inability to resume classes on time due to a shortage of teachers, delays in feeding grants and a lack of building facilities which, on occasions, have resulted in children having to study under trees”.
With these concerns arising, it is important to ascertain how the COVID 19 is negatively impacting on the lives of children in Ghana especially when Schools re-opened in June, 2020. Ghana already has a record where child protection is not given a priority especially in our educational certain. Many kids sit under trees to study and are exposed to bad weather conditions. Nursery and Kindergarten children are the most affected when assessing access to proper classrooms, furniture, learning materials and qualified teachers.
Over the years, Ghana government has invested heavily on tertiary and secondary education as compared to investment in early childhood and basic education. In terms of health, good hospitals are easily accessed by adult populations than children. The educated elites have access to better protection and safety protocols in terms of health and security and the poor illiterate parents and the vulnerable children relegated to the background.
Since the outbreak of COVID 19 in Ghana, I have been following government protocols and how they take into consideration child protection issues. For the past 4 to 5 months, not much attention has been given to child protection in the country. I am discussing this issue from a broader perspective by looking at the parental, civil society and government’s duties towards children’s safety and welfare in the midst of this novel coronavirus. As a country we need ask ourselves, what have we done to create a safe and friendly environment for the Ghanaian child during this COVID 19 pandemic.
The specific duty bearers in this child protection include parents, government officials, police, teachers and social workers. Per the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which seeks to promote child protection in member countries, all duty bearers have a die-responsibility to ensure that any step, decision, policy and programme taken must be in the best interest of the child, enhance child safety and welfare and promote the rights of the child.
At the family level, most parents in Ghana are poor and oftentimes find it difficult to care adequately the basic and safety needs of children. At this time when parents have come to be aware of this COVID 19 pandemic, one would expect serious attention paid to children by their parents.
Unfortunately, most parents play down the COVID 19 safety protocols and therefore, allow their children to go round playing with other children on the streets. Most of the children living in sub-urban and rural areas are not being seen with face or nose masks or being kept at home, rather most parents send out their kids to run errands for them, thereby risking the lives of kids.
During the lockdown of Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi, street children were at a disadvantage though the ministry of gender, children and social protection had provided temporal accommodation and daily meals to these homeless kids and vulnerable parents. At the host stations, safety protocols were not adhered to and people have to crowd themselves to receive meals distributed to them. With the central government supplying PPEs to many state institutions, distribution has always been skewed in favour of the adult population. No conscious attempts have been made to target children in particular and provide them with safety PPEs. With public education, less emphasis is given on the need for parents to protect, monitor or keep their children home.
When schools reopened, some concerns were made regarding the safety of school children but government promised to ensure every school receive the needed PPEs and observe the COVID 19 safety protocols. As to whether this was adequately executed is an issue to look. However, a week or two after reopening, some schools including Accra Girls’ SHS started recording positive cases of COVID 19 infections.
This raised public uproar with several stakeholder calling on government to reclose the schools. The intensity of call came in when student of KNUST SHS died of suspected case of COVID 19 to the glaring negligence of the Head and Teachers of the school. These incidents are child protection concerns that must be adequately addressed by government.
The child protection incidents as discussed have revealed serious gaps in our handling of the safety and wellbeing of children in our country. First, not all our SHS schools are boarding and almost all our JHS are day, showing that the day to day movement of children to and from school pose a risk to the lives of these children in this era of COVID 19. Secondly, majority of our schools have disciplinary issues involving children, and the possibility of teachers sitting on the fence without enforcing COVID 19 protocols in the schools is very high. Accommodation and furniture are issues that need to be addressed in our schools.
Another risk factor for school children especially girls is the possibility of abuse. Already, some school girls are suffering from sexual harassment and abuse from teachers and the general society though many of these issues are unreported due to the Ghanaian culture of silence before adults.
Already, some parents and civil society have raised concerns about the possible increase in teenage pregnancy and early marriages during the school closures, as such, some unscrupulous teachers will take advantage of the situation to met out verbal, physical and sexual abuse on children especially if such children happen to break the GES/GHS COVID 19 protocols for the schools.
Furthermore, some teachers are likely to stay away from the classrooms especially in the schools that have recorded positive cases for fear of being infected. Their presence might be felt in attendance registers, but impacting the knowledge to students is what might not be felt.
In all situations, we must know that Ghana is signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and every effort must be taken to protect the lives of children and ensure they enjoy their fundamental rights to safety, wellbeing and education. Government might want to introduce specific child protection guidelines in all schools and make it a compulsory requirement for all individuals dealing and working with children. I may suggest to government to immediately recruit child protection and guidance and counseling officers to all state institutions working with children especially in schools.
The responsibility of such officers must include ensure that in all school activities, child safety measures are integrated and adhered to and help report child protection concerns to the appropriate agencies for quick redress. If we can do these as a country, then there would be no need to close down schools even if COVID 19 continue to leave with us, because, children under controlled environment are much safer than in an open society.
I believe we can protect the lives of our children from all forms of dangers including COVID 19 when we collectively and individually perform our duties diligently as parents, public officials, teachers, and government. In this, our children will live a healthy life and enjoy their rights to education.
ABU IBRAHIM AZEBRE