Ysrael, could you give us a brief overview about the current situation around the Corona virus in the Philippines?
In the Philippines, we are still seeing an increase in COVID-19 infections and we currently have one of the highest mortality rates in the world in this pandemic. The government must press decisively for mass testing, significantly increase health sector resources and help communities meet basic needs during the pandemic. Mass testing is expected to begin soon (14 April 2020). Then we expect an increase in confirmed cases, but hopefully also numbers around recovered patients or a possible number of undetected cases. Early detection is the key to treating those infected. Unfortunately, it is still too early to say whether we can flatten the curve - the development remains dynamic.
At the moment the world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis due to the outbreak of COVID-19. The risk of infection and quarantine measures have worsened the health and social situation in many countries, especially for girls and boys. Also in the Philippines?
The overburdened health care system has forced the country's hospitals to close their outpatient clinics and drastically reduce the bed capacity of the hospitals. As a result, access to health care for non-Covid19 cases is limited. The quarantine measures have an impact on family income in the communities: As a result, children receive less quality food.
In addition, school closures and quarantine measures limit families' options. This affects 27 million school-age children across the country. As a result of quarantine measures, girls and boys have little access to leisure and play opportunities with their peers. Mental health is at risk in all age groups.
Do you see an increase of violence towards children because of COVID-19?
The Covid-19 pandemic has not caused so many new problems, but has increased existing risks. In Asia this includes cultural beliefs and practices such as tabooing the topic sexuality as well as sexuality itself. We call this a culture of silence. The effects, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, are now increasing: girls and boys become victims of child sexual abuse more quickly at home, often being trapped with the potential perpetrator(s). In most cases these are fathers or stepfathers. Usually helpers such as teachers or school counsellors are the first to learn about the assaults in everyday school life. This is no longer possible because of quarantine measures.
But of course the danger also lurks in domestic violence itself: Children are seen as property or as less worthy human beings. There is often physical punishment and a cycle of family violence.
Does poverty make it worse?
Reduced income opportunities in families now increase the risk of sexual exploitation of children, because families are currently in a kind of survival mode, trying everything possible to feed their family. One possible consequence: child protection has a lower priority.
Take online live streaming as an example: because girls and boys now are spending even more time with digital media, the risk of inappropriate or even harmful online content and possible interaction with online offenders increases. But even young people who usually engage in romantic relationships with their peers have limited opportunities for physical interaction due to quarantine. Therefore, they seek online exchange and exchange intimate images that may be exploited by others.
Are there already figures that underline this development?
Unfortunately, no data are available at present to determine the exact number of cases during the quarantine period. However, previous pandemics or disasters have already shown that sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children in such situations is increasing dramatically.
Can online media be used as a tool during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes. Because we cannot communicate directly with the families, we use social media. We exchange information there on the topic of violence prevention or share information where one can get access to precise information about COVID-19.
Our e-learning measures on the subject of child protection are also a great help for us. On the websites, adults and children in the middle of the Corona pandemic are given access to free events on child protection. We inform people that they can learn more about it even if they are isolated in their own homes.
How can NGOs support children in this pandemic?
NGOs working directly in the communities can address issues related to violence against children during the pandemic by taking the following steps:
Preventing violence: This can be achieved primarily through non-traditional channels such as social media. In this way, families are better able to create a safer environment for children; the children themselves learn which behaviour is right and wrong. If access to technology is not possible, NGOs must consider other ways of dissemination.
Detecting and reporting violence: Organisations are an important link between official reporting systems and structures and affected people. If an NGO is already looking after a family, it is easier for employees to uncover cases of abuse and help them to pass them on to official channels.
Lobbying for the maintenance of child protection measures: Because governments are in crisis mode at the moment, there is a danger that child protection is hardly a priority. Therefore, child rights organisations should work with governments to ensure that child rights and child protection are included in government action.
Can you estimate how violence in the entire Asian region has changed in recent weeks?
There is still too little data for that. But countries such as Thailand and Cambodia have already expressed fears that online child abuse is increasing due to the quarantine caused by COVID-19. In South Asia, especially in India, access to emergency numbers for children and young people has increased.
Interview: Simone Orlik, April 14, 2020