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COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on Gambian Children

Kani Secka, 17, is going through the worst experience of her life. She’s forced to stay at home away from school, meeting friends and her normal recreational fun activities. This is all due to the stay at home order instructed by the state as it battles with the invisible enemy – the coronavirus.

“It’s a trauma for me. The stay-at-home has affected me in different ways. I’m totally restricted. I’m not allowed to meet my friends or go on my normal outing,” she tells The Chronicle.

While in normal days, Kani is engaged in house chores activities which include cooking, washing basins, laundering would come on weekends, her domestic work burden has increased in the current stay-at-home.

“Staying at home is very hard for me because before, I was not doing much work at home. But now, I can’t do anything to avoid doing house work.”

Kani is currently a grade 11 at Banjulinding Senior Secondary School.

‘Nobody trusts no one’ 

Like Kani, Mama is also a student. She’s currently in 7, enrolled at Kunkunjang Upper Basic School. Due to her performance and public speaking confidence, she was chosen to read the valedictory speech on behalf of her badge last year when they graduated from Lower Basic School. She’s now at 14.

“This Covid-19 disturbs us a lot especially after the president ordered for the stay-at-home. I can’t go about my normal activities including going to ‘dara’ (part time Islamic studies), playing with my friends. Because with Covid-19, nobody trusts no one. So, I can’t trust even my friends and I have no choice but to stay at home,” she tells The Chronicle.

Mama

The Director of Social Welfare, Jankoba Jabbi, says the stay-at-home has restricted the movement of children as they cannot go out to play with their colleagues.

“This will affect them psychologically because they are denied their free movement. It’s their right but it’s restricted,” he tells The Chronicle.

He said it has also affected children academically as most of them stick to the TV screens watching different types of films and other entertainment programs without reading their books.

“This should be compensated by creating a child safety stay-at-home by providing toys and other materials that they can entertain themselves because if they don’t have these facilities they are going to be affected emotionally,” he says.

Parents – Missing work means missing meals  

According to the 2019 State of the World’s Children Report by UNICEF, there are still millions of malnourished children in the world. The number of stunted children is falling in every continent except Africa, where there is also an increase in the number of overweight and obese children.

“This pandemic will most likely exacerbate the situation. Take for example the case of a single mother living in a slum, who since schools have been closed, is forced to stay at home and take care of her children. Previously, she could leave her children in school and go out in search of low-paying casual jobs in order to buy food and other necessities. She does not have savings, mostly debts,” writes Victor Koyi, Africa Regional Director, ChildFund International in an opinion published in The Chronicle last month.

Victor Koyi

“Now, she is unable to provide. Let alone the fact that urban informal settlements are hotspots for the spread of the virus. For families living in poverty, missing work means missing meals. With governments calling for more organizations to apply the work-from-home policy and others closing shop, there are fewer work opportunities, which renders this mother almost hopeless, without a source of income.”

He said the lack of support to these children and families may spell a disaster, stating that these are realities that must be confronted and addressed immediately by providing innovative and sustainable solutions.

About 45% of Gambia’s population are children and most of them were already living in extreme poverty, according to Lamin Fatty, National Coordinator of Child Protection Alliance (CPA).

“The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and the declaration of state of public emergency in The Gambia continues to take toll on children in the country.”

“The absence of social protection and community safety nets in this period have led to children suffering from hunger, malnutrition and ill health,” he tells The Chronicle.

Abuse of children 

Victor is afraid that children’s safety is also an area at stake during the stay-at-home directive. He cited that when emergencies occur, social systems tend to break down, and children become more vulnerable and exposed to violence.

“In this case, the perpetrators are not only external parties but may include parents. People are under stress, they are worried and scared, and they take out that anxiety on their children.”

“The same single mother living in a slum who is unable to provide for her family can easily fall into depression. As she confronts life’s challenges daily, chances are high that she will take out her frustrations on her children,” he stated.

The ChildFund Africa Regional Director says curfews, quarantine, stay-at-home policies can increase the risk of exploitation and abuse among children.

“This season presents a huge challenge especially for girls. Being out-of-school, means a greater risk of unwanted pregnancy and early or forced marriages.

CPA National Coordinator said the widespread closure of schools and child care centers have effectively excluded children from basic services. He said it has exposed children to multiple forms of violence and abuse, including sexual violence, labor exploitation, physical and humiliating punishment.

Lamin Fatty

“Covid-19 have disproportionate adverse impact on children, including especially those with disabilities, children living on the street and child domestic workers,” Fatty added.

He said while at home, girls, particularly, are at heightened risk of early marriage, FGM/C and gender-based violence.

The Social Welfare Director also believes that child abuse may increase due to close and constant interactions between children and adults, especially even sexual, physical and emotional abuses.

“I think parents should be tolerant, they should understand that this is a situation that nobody was expecting. They should treat children with love, care and provide them with all their needs because their movements have been restricted,” Jankoba says.

Trauma from spousal conflict

Experts and stakeholders on child protection believe that children could be traumatized by the anticipated rise of conflict between husbands and wives during the period of stay-at-home.

“The impact of stay-at-home also has increased the domestic violence at homes. You know men are not used to staying at home for a long time and this is what is happening now because the situation has changed due to the scale down of staff,” Jankoba Jabbi, Director of the Department of Social Welfare tells The Chronicle.

He explained that due to frustration, men can easily get angry with certain demands especially financial needs which causes conflict between them.

“This results in quarrels between husbands and wives in the presence of children and this affects children,” he said.

He urged husbands to exercise understanding with the wives to reduce gender-based violence at home during this period to avoid creating trauma for children.

Lamin Fatty has also told The Chronicle that the rising incidents of domestic and intimate partner violence could have a severe impact on children.

Mr. Victor suggested the need to disseminate messages on parenting during this stressful period is significant to address the growing anxiety in children and caregivers as well as promoting awareness on Covid-19 preventive and protective measures is crucial.

Mental health of children at risk

Jim Jobe, psycho-social worker says social restrictions and school closures are causing feelings of anxiety in children, with many at risk of lasting psychological distress, including depression.

“Children may struggle with boredom and feelings of isolation. Children may feel helplessness, loneliness and fear of being socially excluded, stigmatized or separated from loved ones are common in COVID-19 epidemic. While prolonged stress, boredom and social isolation, as well as lack of outdoor play, can lead to a higher number of mental health conditions in children, such as anxiety and even depression.”

Jim, who’s currently part of government’s frontline workers in the fight against the pandemic, told The Chronicle that children being unable to play outside with friends or fears of falling behind education, feelings of anxiety and deprivation could affect their mental health status.

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