COVID-19: Impact on children’s human rights across the world

Date: 9th April 2020
Category: Disability, Basic Health and Welfare, Civil Rights and Freedoms, Education, Leisure and Cultural Activities, Family Environment and Alternative Care


The response to COVID-19 is impacting the rights of children across the world, particularly those belonging to certain vulnerable groups. This article looks at a selection of issues identified by international charities and organisations, and what individuals, local and national government can do to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights during this time of uncertainty.

Impact on children’s right to education (Article 28 UNCRC)

Many countries have closed their schools to contain the spread of COVID-19. Whilst teachers are working hard to support distance learning for millions of children, UNESCO recommends that teachers adapt a range of hi- and low-tech resources. This is because not all children have access to the technology or digital resources required by online learning materials. This is often due to children living in poverty and international studies have identified a gender-based gap. Human Rights Watch recommends particularly monitoring girls’ participation in distance learning exercises, as this can enable teachers to respond quickly if their participation falls.

When schools reopen, Human Rights Watch recommends that Governments and education officials should adopt outreach measures and monitor school returns. Focusing their attention on areas with high incidences of child marriages and child labour, ensuring all children return to school. 

Violence against children (Articles 19 and 39 UNCRC)

The uncertainty of COVID-19 can create high-stress home environments. UNICEF and End Violence Against Children note this heightens the risk of domestic violence and abuse that children either experience or observe. As children continue to spend time at home, they will undoubtedly live more of their lives online. Accordingly, there are risks around online abuse and exploitation.

UNICEF notes that previous public health emergencies have seen increased rates of abuse and exploitation of children. For example, school closures during Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014-16 contributed to spikes in child labour, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies.

Human Rights Watch recommends Governments create public awareness campaigns, addressing how victims of domestic violence can access services and ensure that support and recovery services are available to all, even those who are in quarantine

Bullying (Articles 19 and 28 UNCRC)

News reports from the UK, the US, Spain and Italy among others have documented bias, racism, xenophobia, and discrimination against children and adults perceived as being of Asian descent, because of the outbreak.

Children should be supported to learn about the virus and that it knows no boundaries and recognises no distinctions of race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. They should have a trusted adult who they can tell if they hear any name-calling or bullying, and who can support them. Learning about the virus and how it is spread can reduce children’s fears and help to avoid any misconceptions they may have. In turn, this can help to prevent bullying behaviours.

Ability for children to access information (Article 17 UNCRC)

Children have a right to access information from a range of sources. Some countries, including China, initially withheld information about Coronavirus and its spread. Inaccurate, inadequate or inaccessible information increases the risk of children becoming misinformed and can subsequently cause negative health implications.

Governments across the globe should provide timely, accurate and accessible information regarding Covid-19. Information should be made available in multiple languages, comprehensible to people of all ages, disabilities and literacy abilities.

Impact on displaced children (Article 24 UNCRC)

Refugee Rights Europe stated that displaced children are at a heightened risk of experiencing health issues during the crisis. Poor living conditions and lack of sanitation facilities mean that opportunities to follow advice on handwashing are limited. Many are unable to access health services, while others are fearful of the risk of detention or removal if they present themselves to health authorities with suspected Coronavirus. Many of those who do wish to seek support will not be able to as they may lack a mobile phone or enough phone battery to make an emergency call.

Measures for infection prevention and control, increased dissemination of information in a range of languages and formats, quick identification, isolation of existing cases and the treatment of COVID-19 cases need to be provided irrespective of immigration status.

Children deprived of their liberty (Articles 37 & 40 UNCRC)

The Global Detention Project highlighted that individuals placed in immigration detention centres are “frequently confined in facilities with inadequate sanitary provisions and limited health care, and all too often they are forced to share rooms with countless others”. The only option for ‘social distancing’ would be to place individuals in full isolation, which can have negative effects upon individual’s mental health and is therefore not a suitable alternative. The Children’s Commissioner for England has stated in a letter to the Ministry of Justice that this may result in de factor solitary confinement. This would breach children’s rights under Article 37 and 40 of the UNCRC.

Children in detention centres and custody settings are also likely to be affected by staff shortages through sickness, leaving centres struggling to provide proper care. This may give rise to difficulties maintaining healthcare, education services and children’s ability to leave their cells to exercise and socialise. The effect of this upon children can be severe.

Moreover, the suspension of some court proceedings risks leaving children in detention for longer periods until the courts are safe to open and their cases can progress. 

Some organisations have called on governments to reduce the number of children in detention and custody settings in order to reduce crowding and prevent the virus’ spread.