How children feel and what they want during and beyond the pandemic
National Action and Coordination Group (NACG) consists of both grassroots level civil society organizations and national and international INGOs. Dwelling on their field experience, during the first wave of COVID-19 back in last June, the NACG conducted a children’s consultation to capture children’s voices about the situation. During a television program aired through Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, the concerns and suggestions that came from children were forwarded to relevant authorities for on-the-spot answers as well as for future actions by the authorities.
Some main concerns included, protection risks at home and from the surrounding, necessity for child-friendly risk communication, none- accessibility for online/technology-driven education, none- accessibility for psychosocial support, disability-inclusive emergency programming, and family economic hardships due to loss of income during the lockdown. This document intends to draw your attention to children’s issues that emerged from the first wave of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. However, it is noteworthy that the findings of this consultation still valid to the current wave of COVID-19 and remain as areas for actions by respective authorities. The NACG is hopeful that the children’s views highlighted in this document will accelerate the implementation of policies and procedures to ensure the rights and well-being of children during current and future emergencies.
A civil society movement to the last mile Introduction to NACG
Established in 2011, National Action and Coordination Group (NACG) is a national civil society network stemming from South Asia Initiative to End Violence against Children (SAIEVAC) with a purpose to strengthen inter-agency work including government and civil society to End Violence Against Children (EVAC). SAIEVAC is an intergovernmental initiative working on prevention of all forms of violence against children across south Asia. NACG works under 6 thematic areas namely; 1) Child sexual abuse and exploitation 2) Child labor 3) Child trafficking 4) Child marriages 5) Corporal punishment and 6) child participation The NACG consists of member organizations and individuals namely; Foundation for Innovative Social Development (FISD), ChildFund Sri Lanka, World Vision, LEADS, Rehabilitation Centre for the Communication Impaired (RCCI), Abhimana Community Development Association, Blooming Buds, ChildFund, FISD, LEADS, PEACE ECPAT, RCCI, Institute of Rural and Social Development (IRSD), Safe Foundation, SERVE, SOS Children’s Village, T Field, World Vision and Dr. Priyangani Jayasundara.
A time of distress for everyone including children
The first wave of COVID lock down was an unusual and unprecedent situation for Sri Lankan society. It brought about a strange experience to the whole society including children. While adults started to experience no-work or work from home situation children started to face no-school, no-outdoor activities, and no-peer interaction situation.
This unprecedented scenario presented serious challenges to ensure protection and wellbeing of children. Their usual pattern of life was completely changed and set of new norms, rules and practices started to dictate their lives. The new scenario also created a new set of risk and challenges for children as predicted by the experts in the child protection and development. Following were some of the areas emerged as concerns;
- Psychological impact of sudden and unprecedented change
- Physical impact on children’s development due to the potentially inactive lifestyle
- Challenges in continuation of studies without proper directions, equipment, and internet facilities
- Increased tension between children and parents while being together for a longer period and increased physical violence/cruelty to children.
- Unnecessary pressure from parents on children to study continually.
Health had been the priority during this period. Therefore, other aspects related to the effect of virus outbreak on the lives and livelihoods of people need purposeful attention. Protection and wellbeing of children were further neglect amid other priorities. Lock down had exposed children to a multitude of risks i.e. increased domestic violence against children, addiction to the screen, isolation from peers, boredom, limitations of physical activities, fear of COVID 19. etc., There were non- empirical but emerging evidence for NACG that this situation was real owing to the day-to-day interactions with the member organizations that represent the grassroots.
It was also noted that even with years of interventions both from the government and non-government organizations, there were still fundamental gaps around child protection service delivery.
The situation is equally applicable to the second wave of COIVD-19 too. This document intends to share children’s first-hand experience on COVID- 19 first wave which was collected virtually and shared with the authorities. This document gives a comprehensive overview of the process, its content and suggests pragmatic child-friendly actions to ensure the rights and wellbeing of children during COVID -19 pandemic and beyond.
NACG identified three main areas for the consultation as given below;
- Child protection
Different communities/groups were selected representing diverse socioeconomic backgrounds covering 22 districts of the country.
The survey team worked closely with District Child Right Promotion Offices (DCRPO) of Department of Probation and Child Care Services (DPCCS) in reaching out the children. Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation captured this important endeavor and telecasted the event. The question and suggestions from children were posted to high level authorities who were then in the office.
The content included personal level expressions and questions from children, their individual and common needs, expectations, anxieties they had been undergoing during this period. The event also provided the children with an opportunity to come up with suggestions to remedy the situation in a child sensitive manner.
How do children feel during this time of distress?
Positives of COVID lock down
- Spending time happily with the family
- Good time to spend with the environment
- Engage in collective activities such as home gardening
- Feeling anxious about the situation in the country
- Feeling scared about the disease, individual and family health
- Feeling sad and anxious because of not having access to online education
- Feeling uncertain about their parent’s incomes
Question to the government
- What can the government do to keep the morale of the people high during this challenging time?
- What programs are available for children with disabilities to engage so that they can be happy and engaged?
- Are there recommended approaches for children to engage in sports activities safely? If yes, How can we access them?
- Is there any method or counseling service available for children to discuss their problems?
- What are the steps taken to rebuild the negative mindset towards education that was caused by the closure of schools for a longer period of time?
- Why do the media highlight our village as a bad place? It causes humiliation and mental Is there any support mechanism for children to avoid stress and loneliness?
- What can the government do to maintain the nutrition level high during this time?
- Children’s clubs should be strengthened to play and have an engagement with peers.
- Government should concentrate more on the most vulnerable families who are working as daily wage laborers.
- Conduct sessions for parents to make child-friendly homes.
- Increase disability inclusion in awareness programs, materials, and sessions related to risk communication, education, and all other topics being discussed during this period.
- There should be a proper counseling system before starting the schools to familiarize the new learning environment to the students.
Major findings of each thematic area; Health/Psychosocial well-being, protection, and education are summarized below.
Health and Psychosocial well-being.
- Focus on studying and education-related activities
- Doing religious rituals as a family
- Engage with friends through phones
- More time for playing and TV
- No child-friendly risk communication.
- Not having an opportunity to meet with friends, missed playing with friends.
- Listen to the children's concerns and answer their questions in an age-appropriate manner.
- Encourage children to express and communicate their feelings/space for children to voice out.
- Provide a healthy and safe opportunity for children to relax their minds
Factors that affect online education
As per children, the following are the key factors for quality education.
- Access to technology
- The proactiveness of respective schools and teachers
- Availability of members with knowledge in the families
- Having a conducive environment at home
During the pandemic lockdown, children started missing a few or all the above factors for education together with some other factors that affect their psychosocial well- being;
- Missing the school and friends
- Not having the peer support
- Economic issues in the family affecting and disturbing the peace of mind
- Not getting materials from the school
To name of a few.
The majority of the children requested the reopening of schools soon. However, children also expressed their concern about possible pressures they will get from both teachers and parents to catch up on the missing time. This indicates that they were not fully confident that their elders understand the status and experience children were going through.
Key questions posed by children
- Can the government provide devices and access to free internet facilities for education?
- Will there be after schools and extra hours of learning when schools start?
- Can government introduce alternatives for learning other than online classes?
- Can government support parents to find means of income?
- Will, the government gives exam paper samples to prepare for examinations?
- What are guidelines have you provided to the school and authorities about the protection of all children?
- Can you please aware children of them before school starts?
- Open the schools as soon as possible
- Provide good protection and protective devices for students when schools start
- Provide special protection for students in the public transportation system
- More television channels committed to the education program
- Postpone the exams and cover the syllabus well
- Teachers should not hit us when teaching, they need to cover the missed lessons and need to give adequate time for the same
- Ensure adequate learning materials for disabled children
- Alternatives to accessing education those who have financial difficulties to access technology-driven education
- Establish village level education centers and pocket libraries
- Introduce a roster for students when school starts, so that fewer children are in schools at any given time
- Education methods should be inclusive for all types of children with disabilities
- Relief for personal loans to ease family economic burdens
- Introduction of the alternative offline education method
- Using radio for teaching and mind relaxation for children
- Expand E -thaksalawa facilities
- Risk and plausible harms for children in villages/periphery are not being monitored.
- Parents are unable to cope with children’s emotions during this time since they are also stressed.
- Field-level officials don’t care about children and do not come to the field.
- When children engage more and more with technical devices, they are prone to additional risks.
Suggestions from children
- Make hotlines to be accessed via video conference/ communication such as WhatsApp, Viber, and IMO, and receivers/ officers who receive the call to understand sign language and respond immediately.
- Would be good if a police post can be established in our village for protection.
- Popularize attractive ways to keep children at home and keep them engaged.
- There are children at risk of abuse and those children, and their families should be monitored and supported with extra attention.
- Develop disability-sensitive materials to ensure visual impairment and hearing impairment children’s needs.
- Please put extra attention to child development centers and children who do not have parents and living with their relatives.
- Give additional and special training to child protection service providers to deal with children during this time of hardship. They don’t seem to practice child-sensitive approaches.
Key messages derived from children’s consultation.
There are several strongly emerging messages in all three areas of education, health, and protection.
- Children have strongly expressed their desire to be in the protection of the family. They specifically mentioned their desire to have their mothers around.
- Children who do not have one of their parents at home have vehemently raised their expectations to bring them back home. This is not purely due to economic reasons but having them around seems to be one of the prerequisites to feel content and protected.
- It is evident that children have a strong awareness of their surroundings and what issues and risks prevail in their environment. Children who are living in unprotected houses, in areas that have widespread drug addicts and illicit liquor available, have expressed their sense of additional fear in terms of protection during this time.
- They are significantly vigilant about the pandemic and the threats it poses to the global community.
- It is obvious that adult society is not paying enough attention to how this unprecedented event is affecting the emotional wellbeing of children. Children were being exposed to news about the pathetic situation of the Covid 19 pandemic in other countries through mass media and they hear about deaths and another socio-economic impact of it frequently. This had been a shocking exposure to them especially when adults were not facilitating this inflow of information in a way it becomes something that makes children educated instead of giving them an emotional blow.
- Children have also stressed the need for creating a child-friendly environment at home. Educational and awareness programs for parents on creating a child-friendly environment are a necessity. These expressions prove that children are not only aware of their right to live in a conducive environment but also have ideas on what are barriers exist and how to overcome such barriers.
- Some of the children expressed their anxiety over the economic issues that their parents are facing and how it affects the peace and wellbeing within the family.
- In their responses, children have appreciated people or the organization who have talked to them and listened to them during this completely disconnected time. It indicates their desire to be connected and expressed their feelings to others than their own family members.
- They had talked about the need for sports and physical activities as well as virtual programs they can engage with their peers to avoid stress and loneliness.
- They had talked about the need for sports and physical activities as well as virtual programs they can engage with their peers to avoid stress and loneliness.
- Making available special materials, creating separate online programs for them as well as access to new technologies developed to support disabled children were highlighted.
- Children have expressed their fear and concerns over the potential pressure they would get from the teachers and parents completing the educational targets, such as covering the syllabus within a short period of time, performing well in the term tests, etc. Some of the children have requested to reduce the content of the syllabus and making term tests accordingly because of their fear that higher expectations of teachers and parents can potentially lead to even corporal punishments.
- Though children expressed concerns about what would happen once the schools started, they also expressed their anxiety about not having an opportunity to meet with their teachers. As the reason, some of the children mentioned that it is difficult to follow the lessons without the support of the teachers and peers whereas some of the children said that they just miss the teacher’s association. It indicates that the bond that children are having with the teachers is an important aspect of their education as well as their lives.
- While the majority was appreciating the online educational program, a considerable amount of responses questioned the effectiveness of the approach. Some have simply said that the content is difficult to be followed, whereas in other instances children raised issues about the availability of devices and connectivity issues indicating that online teaching is not an inclusive approach in the current context.
- Children have also inquired about the possibility of establishing educational support facilities at the village level with the library and internet access, teaching support, other educational materials, etc.
- While they were eager to go to schools as soon as possible, some of the children have raised their concerns over the protection from disease when schools re-opened and how to minimize the risk involved. Children have also suggested that protective materials should be provided at the school premises and the handwashing facilities should be made available in all schools including most remote schools.
- Gaps in the current education system in general as well as in unprecedented emergency situations like this were emerging from children’s response clearly. For example, lack of guidance in major transiting points in education such as O/L to A/L, quality, coverage, and access to online materials, the mismatch between the expected scope of subjects, method of delivery, and children’s ability and capacity to absorb were some areas that children have mentioned.
- The need for building parental capacity and knowledge in upbringing children was indicated in some of the responses. Impatience of parents and teachers to speedily cover up lost time disregarding age-related interests and other needs of children is an example.
This consultation was done during the first wave of the pandemic. However, the NACG strongly believes that the findings are equally applicable to the recurrent situations including the ongoing wave of COVID 19. The areas highlighted by children still need attention from relevant parties. Therefore, the NACG requests you to create a space for children to participate, take immediate actions to concerns raised and also consider these suggestions in your future planning processors.
- Ensure the safety of all schools by establishing sanitizing and health checkpoints in all schools including most remote schools.
- Provision and linking of psychosocial services to the last mile. The current Psychosocial Support Services (PSS) should be linked with the education system. Rather than a demand-driven approach, a mechanism should be established at schools at least for a six-month period to support children and teachers in the aftermath of COVID school closure.
- Assessment of current PSS services to understand the community needs vs service availability and capacity of the government to extend the support to all levels.
- Reactivate and use the PSS community of practice formed in the aftermath of the Tsunami and get support from other CSOs as needed.
- Curriculum revision to meet all children’s requirements assuring equality and equity.
- ICT policy review, enactment, and implementation for education capturing online safety thus realizing ICT education facilities per ‘vista of splendor and prosperity.
- Revisit the current education policy/policy framework and introduction of a comprehensive national-level education policy to capture the emerging needs including online education.
The NACG is willing to have a detailed discussion with you to elaborate on the children’s concerns and discuss the suggested actions in detail. We are also happy to produce a detailed copy of the process document upon request.
ADVOCACY DOCUMENT COMPILED BY:
- Saranga Jayaratne - Advisor, Country Office Advocacy ChildFund International
- Lasantha Premachandra - Senior Manager | External Engagement & Advocacy World Vision International
Chair - NACG Sri Lanka
Foundation for Innovative Social Development (FISD)
Co-Chair – NACG Sri Lanka
ChildFund Sri Lanka