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Special report Coronavirus

Special report

Working to stop street children becoming the hidden victims of coronavirus

Out of sight

We are undoubtedly facing a global crisis unlike any the world has ever seen before. In the space of just a few short months, the coronavirus pandemic has spread to almost every country, bringing grief, anxiety and economic chaos.

As the outbreak continues, it is easy to miss those who are out of sight. Street children are the hidden victims of this pandemic – which threatens their rights and exposes them to even greater risks. So many of the street children we work with don’t have a birth certificate which means they are unregistered. Unable to earn any money, and without a safe place to isolate, they become dependent on government support. But unregistered children are invisible– they do not officially exist, and cannot access any official help, which makes them even more vulnerable.

Stark realities

Since the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a global pandemic, all the countries in which we work have implemented measures to prevent the virus from spreading. Many of these states already have fragile and under-resourced health care systems, with governments concerned about their ability to cope with these new and overwhelming pressures. The regular reports we are receiving from our partners outline the stark realities they are grappling with.

In India, the lockdown has proved catastrophic for those living in cramped and densely populated urban slums, where recent heavy rainfall has left families facing the horror of human waste travelling into their homes – which they are not permitted to leave. In Guatemala, our partner tells us that there is fear, misinformation and stigma associated with the virus, and local extremist leaders are inciting communities to violence.

Emergency care

Street children have complex needs, but by far their most pressing need is basic survival. As coronavirus is so easily transmissible, children on the streets are particularly susceptible to contracting it – and the two things which work best to prevent the spread – good hygiene practices and social distancing – are those that street children are simply unable to do.

We know street children already struggle to access essential services, so during times of crisis like these when healthcare systems are overstretched, they are even less likely to receive the care they so desperately need. Another huge challenge street children are facing is linked to the rules and restrictions on movement and being out in public spaces. When lockdowns are enforced with criminal sanctions, those living on the streets are at a high risk of being prosecuted and further marginalised.

Complex needs

Our partners are working alongside their governments to ensure street children are given the emergency support they need to survive – food, water and medical care - as well as advocating to stop them being criminalised for being homeless. They are also working tirelessly to find places for children in shelters or with extended families.

Our partners in Nepal and El Salvador are also providing children with emergency food, and hygiene kits including masks, hand-wash and soap are being distributed to communities in four of the countries we work in.

Moving fast to adapt

Special report Moving fast
to adapt

As countries act to curtail the spread of the virus and the situation on the ground in all the countries we work in is changing daily, as a small organisation we are doing our best to adapt to new and complex situations without losing sight of our role in keeping some of the world’s most vulnerable children safe.

Click on each country to get an update on the emergency response being delivered there.

Special report Guatemala

We know that isolation is putting some children at greater risk of abuse and neglect. We are also aware that the virus is driving children off the streets and back to the precarious situations they once fled from. In a country where violence against children is already at an overwhelming level – this could have serious and dangerous repercussions.

For children living with their families, our partner is providing telephone guidance to encourage healthy parenting methods and to help rebuild relationships. They are also giving children phone credit so they can reach out to them for support and sharing videos with children on how to keep themselves safe. In order to protect children’s mental and physical health, they are offering counselling and online health check-ups.

For those children who remain on the streets, the team have been supporting overnight shelters to provide food, medicine and other essential services and working with local businesses to provide meals and food vouchers.

In three of the areas we work there is no access to running water, so our partner is bringing in a water truck to enable communities to have clean, safe water. The team are also working with local businesses to provide 150 children in Guatemala City with food each day and issuing food vouchers to families most in need.

Special report El Salvador

Once named the most-deadly peacetime country in the world, over the last year El Salvador had been demonstrating a decline in the number of daily murders. However, recent reports tell are that violent gangs are taking advantage of the pandemic in a bid to regain control by enforcing social distancing and have sadly been confirmed the murders of over 60 people in one weekend in April alone. Street children, already some of the most vulnerable to this violence, remain not only at significant risk of the virus itself - but the many other deadly implications it brings.

Our partner has been working alongside the National Street Children Network and local authorities to find children places in shelters where they can receive emergency food and healthcare – as well as a safe place to stay. The team are also providing some of the most vulnerable families in the communities where they work with vouchers to buy food.

Special report Bolivia

In Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, there are minimal levels of essential medical equipment and recent reports state there are only 250 ventilators available for a population of approximately 11 million. Prior to the pandemic, over 80% of Bolivians did not have access to stable or secure employment. Many of the street children and families we work with are dependent on casual work, living a hand-to-mouth existence. With shops, restaurants, markets and drop-in centres across the country closed, ways of earning an income are deteriorating. The vulnerability of street children and young people is increasing and, as a result, more are going to sleep hungry.

Before the country’s lockdown, our partner distributed hygiene kits to children on the streets and ran public demonstrations on effective handwashing. They have been working hard to place children with extended families and, where this has not been practical, finding them places in shelters.

Special report Sierra Leone

Over the last five years, Sierra Leone has been rebuilding itself from the after-effects of the devasting Ebola epidemic. Now – with a new deadly virus spreading – the country has prepared itself by declaring a year-long state of emergency, putting in place strict regulations and sanctions for those caught breaking the rules. However, widespread fear has meant that street children, already regarded by many as diseased and dirty, are being further stigmatised, resulting in them struggling to access support.

Our partner is part of the national, government-led taskforce responding to the needs of those affected by the virus. In order to combat the spread of misinformation on the virus, the team are running awareness raising radio programmes. At present, there is still free movement within the two districts where the project operates so our partner’s activities are all still able to run as usual. For children most at-risk, they are also providing mental health support through telephone counselling.

Special report Kenya

Home to over four million people, Nairobi is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Kenya where, although the number of cases is still relatively low, the effects of the virus are still being felt – particularly by the most vulnerable. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation for preventative hygiene, and economic hardships from the collapse of local businesses and loss of livelihoods, are pushing many children and families living in the city’s makeshift slum settlements to breaking point.

Due to strict countrywide regulations, our partner has so far been unable to travel to visit the children they support. In order to keep in touch with them, the team have been contacting families regularly by phone, updating them on how to keep themselves and their children safe, and providing telephone counselling to some of the most vulnerable. Long-term, it is hoped that families will be able to be supported with small grants to help meet their basic needs.

Special report Nepal

The national lockdown in Nepal, and the police who are enforcing it, have further heightened street children’s fear of being criminalised following laws introduced in 2017. As a result, many of the country’s most vulnerable children continue to hide in temples and trees and sleep under bridges or in open spaces to avoid being rounded-up by the authorities who should be working to protect them. With over 40% of the healthcare centres and hospitals damaged during the country’s deadly earthquake in 2015 yet to be rebuilt those needing medical attention are struggling to find it.

Our partners are working in co-ordination with local government to reach children on the streets with emergency food and relief packages including hygiene kits, masks and handwash. Their Child Helpline, set-up to respond to child protection concerns, saw an influx of over 5,000 calls during the first three weeks of lockdown.

Special report India

Whilst strict rules around social distancing remain in place in Delhi, for the millions of families living in cramped and unsanitary slum settlements, practicing good hygiene and social distancing is almost impossible. Street children seeking safe places to sleep during the pandemic are at a particularly high-risk of being caught up in any outbreaks, where overcrowding means containing the spread of the virus is an enormous challenge.

Prevention activities were essential to our partner’s coronavirus response prior to the country’s lockdown at the end of March. Child-friendly awareness-raising packs and hygiene kits were distributed and hand-washing stations constructed in communities. The team continue to work tirelessly to connect vulnerable children to emergency schemes providing food and offer telephone guidance and counselling.


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