UNICEF calls for more investments for young children within COVID-19 response

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New Delhi: As the world celebrates the Global Day of Parents (1 June), amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF reiterates the urgent need to prioritize investments in Early Childhood Development (ECD) including focus on parenting within the COVID-19 response. This is critical to minimize preventable child deaths, to prevent violence against children, and to drive economic recovery and productivity in the longer term.

In times of shock, services to support young children are often not prioritized and end up being overlooked, leading to young children being disproportionately affected. Already scarce resources will likely be diverted to the pandemic response. Along with governments, families and communities also need to understand their role and importance of building a nurturing and protective environment for children.

Today, key findings from a UNICEF led formative study ‘Parenting Matters: Examining Parenting Approaches and Practices, to assess knowledge, attitudes, and practices of parents, families and service providers on parenting(2019) were released. Some are glaring and point to the need for urgent action – especially the kind and amount of violence children were facing.

  • At least 30 different forms of physical and verbal abuse are reported as part of disciplining efforts.
  • Punishment is a widely accepted method to discipline children for both boys and girls in families, schools and at the community level for both girls and boys.
  • Girls and boys are raised very differently from a very early age – with the burden of household chores, day to day restrictions, being imposed more on girls by fathers
  • Mothers are the main caregivers for children while fathers are much less involved
  • While male caregivers took children outdoors, mothers are more involved in enabling indoor stimulation through storytelling and singing, among others

The study outlines the various forms of violence against children resorted to in the household – physical violence (burning; pinching; slapping; beating with implements like sticks, belts, rods) Verbal abuse (blaming; criticizing; shouting; use of foul language); Witnessing physical violence (towards one parent; towards siblings; outside the family) and Emotional abuse (restricting movement; denying food; discrimination; instilling fear).

Speaking to the media, Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative in India said, “Our experience in the Ebola crisis shows us that young children are more likely to experience violence, abuse and neglect as families struggle to cope, that could have a lifelong impact on them. Awareness on positive parenting practices are relevant now more than ever to promote both the mental and physical well-being of children. Supporting parents and caregivers to provide young children with nurturing care in times of crisis is essential.”

CHILDLINE 1098, which has been declared an emergency service by the Minister of Women and Child Development, has indicated that during two weeks of the lockdown in April, the number of calls of children in distress had increased by 50 percent. Restrictions in movement and closure of preschools and schools due to lockdown has put immediate pressure on parents for their children’s survival, care, and learning. This added stress can lead to potential violence against children.

When a child experiences physical or emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, or burdens of economic hardship, without adult support, this triggers their stress response. Prolonged stress can have a lasting impact on an individual’s physical and mental health—for a lifetime. Research indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of the toxic stress response. Therefore, parents need practical ideas on positive parenting, as well as dealing with stress and mental health issues.

Under COVID-19, there is an immediate need to designate child protection services as essential services. The response must include the provision of critical health and social welfare and child protection services, including mental health and psychosocial support, and alternative care arrangements. These services should be available to all, including children as migrants, those without parents, to ensure the protection for the most vulnerable children.

Communicating with and engaging parents, caregivers, and children with evidence-based information and advice is essential. The study recommends building skills of frontline workers to better engage with caregivers. It also highlights the need for quality engagement of fathers in caregiving to support their child’s development.

Addressing the media, state government representatives from Odisha, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh presented initiatives taken to support the continuity of education and early childhood development. Odisha Women and Child Development Secretary Ms. Anu Garg spoke of `Ghareghare Arunima’, a home-based curriculum and set of activities for young children who are enrolled in Anganwadi centers which are closed due to COVID 19. Ms. Garg said the initiative, a joint collaboration of the Government of Odisha, and UNICEF had received a very positive response and the government will extend this beyond the COVID 19 crisis.

The Ghareghare Arunimacalendar has a special focus on how to remain protected from COVID-19 infection, particularly social distancing, handwashing, hygiene, and sanitation to ensure children and their caregivers are educated about the best practices. The curriculum also laid emphasis on a daily routine that has provision for activities, learning as well as adequate sleep and rest. The activities included action songs, storytelling, involving children in household chores such as folding clothes and watering plants and painting with vegetables, thumb printing, etc.

Given the challenges of the lockdown and social distancing measures, the calendar of activities is digitally shared with parents. Each month, the calendar is issued by the WCD department to the District Social Welfare Officers who then share it with Child Development Project Officers who in turn send it onward to ICDS supervisors in their areas. The supervisors then share it with the Anganwadi Workers who further send it to the parents through WhatsApp. For families who do not have access to the internet, printed copies of the calendar and activities are provided to them each fortnight.

States like Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh are forerunners in implementing innovative parenting programmes, that other states can adopt. With UNICEF support, parents, especially fathers, are being provided the information and skills to use material easily available in and around their homes. This has led to better and more parental engagement through storytelling, singing, and playing with the child – all critical for a child’s brain development. This is being done through training of Anganwadi and ASHA workers, so they can use their existing platforms effectively for parent engagement such as through monthly parent meetings and home visits. States are also organizing community events to involve all parents and caregivers around the importance of Eat, Play and Love, such as Palak (caregiver) Mela, in Maharashtra.

UNICEF, together with partners, is also releasing several tools/resources/tips for parents to effectively engage with children on its website. In 2019, UNICEF reached with several community-based partners 1.2 million parents and caregivers with parenting programmes.

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