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Customers in the queue at the MTN shop Lugogo, Kampala, UGANDA - May 2020. Photo credit: Jacqueline Banya / ILO-Kampala
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Barbara Nakijoba BA Social Work and Social Administration and Master’s Candidate Social worker/monitoring and evaluation officer, Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL).

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Rogers Kasirye BA,
Social work, MA and PhD candidate. NGO: Uganda Youth Development Links

Effective social assistance using Cash Transfers to Keep youth experiencing homelessness in Kampala safe during the COVID 19 Pandemic.

The Corona Virus Pandemic is putting children more at risk of online sexual exploitation. Girls are particularly more vulnerable as they account for 90% of those featured in online child abuse materials. Lockdown has meant children are spending more unsupervised time online and the volume of digital content being produced is increasing, making it harder to scrutinize. Distributors of child sexual exploitation material are becoming emboldened and are targeting mainstream platforms to reach wider audiences. Over 15 million school-going children in Uganda are stuck home following the closure of schools. This has left many vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Sexual predators are taking advantage of the children who are spending more unsupervised time online and exploiting them through sexual coercion and sextortion.

The situation is worsened by digitalization where smart phones and high speed internet have become very affordable and accessible. New young users are susceptible to exploitation as they are naïve. Meanwhile, minors trapped at home with abusive relatives have become victims of the live-stream sex abuse trade and other lucrative forms of cybersex trafficking including rape exacerbated by the COVID 19 crisis that has pushed millions of families back into extreme poverty.

Background

The COVID 19 pandemic globally has had a devastating impact especially in low income countries like Uganda. The economy is projected to have slowed down by nearly half for the financial year 2019–2020, and this increases the likelihood of a rise in poverty during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people have faced a reduction in their income due to job and livelihood losses, reduced flow of remittances and loss of market. It is estimated that another 3 million Ugandans are expected to fall into abject poverty, increasing the number to 23 million people. Due to Covid-19, Ugandans living in poverty who rely on the government’s free healthcare programmes have experienced a reduced access to primary healthcare. As a result, Uganda has registered an increase in number of preventable deaths during childbirth and in other health emergencies, and an increased occurrence of deaths due to preventable disease like malaria. Access to family planning and other healthcare programmes has also been compromised.

Youth experiencing homelessness in Kampala were greatly affected. The reality of the COVID 19 Pandemic has greatly impacted most vulnerable youths, who have no parents or guardians. Youth experiencing homelessness have been exposed to greater risk of contracting the Corona virus as they cannot maintain social distance, lack access to health care, and proper nutrition (Auerswald et al. 2020). Children and their families depending on small informal business closed, capital was eaten up and the future became uncertain. Cases of domestic violence in homes also increased as men were no longer able to provide for their wives and children.

As of 2019, there were an estimated 15,000 orphaned and homeless children aged between 7 and 17 in Kampala, the capital of Uganda and this was worsened by the COVID 19 Pandemic. Experts believe that number has risen during the pandemic, in part because more than 1,000 workers were laid off earlier in 2020, with more layoffs anticipated in coming months. Dr. Kelly Doran from NYU School of Medicine said that the pandemic has opened our eyes to the importance of housing for health and that you really can't have a healthy society when you have half a million people or more who are homeless

Online child sexual exploitation of children during COVID 19 Crisis

The Corona Virus Pandemic is putting children more at risk of online sexual exploitation. Girls are particularly more vulnerable as they account for 90% of those featured in online child abuse materials. Globally, there has been an increase in traffic searching for child sexual abuse content. This is a result of people having to stay at home during lock down. Lockdown globally has meant people are spending more time online and the volume of digital content being produced is increasing exponentially, making it harder to scrutinize. Distributors of child sexual exploitation material are becoming emboldened and are targeting mainstream platforms to reach wider audiences. Over 15 million school going children in Uganda are stuck home following the closure of schools. This has left many vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Sexual predators are taking advantage of the children who are spending more unsupervised time online and exploiting them through sexual coercion and sextortion.

The situation is worsened by digitalization where smart phones and high speed internet have become very affordable and accessible. Children world over own smartphones, tablets and laptops. This makes new young users susceptible to exploitation as they are naïve and unable to spot dangers.

Meanwhile, minors trapped at home with abusive relatives have become victims of the live-stream sex abuse trade and other lucrative forms of cybersex trafficking including rape exacerbated by the COVID 19 crisis that has pushed millions of families back into extreme poverty. Due to the lockdown, some of the traditional coping mechanisms and support systems available to the most vulnerable children and families are currently inaccessible especially now that schools are closed, and churches are not holding services. Many of the trusted adult figures who often are able to detect early signs of abuse, and/or help families to cope with added stress, are out of reach during the lockdown.

Nature of UYDEL Beneficiaries

NGOs involved in welfare of children responded, we singularly mention Uganda Youth development link (UYDEL) youth Centres (safe spaces) welcome youths between 14 to 24 years of age. The safe spaces are gazette for rehabilitation of youth. The safe spaces act as spaces for youth to receive psychotherapy, life skills and vocational skills training and also allow for building networks. Most of the YEH are always identified from clubs, bad peers/gangs, slum corridors, and football grounds among other areas. In some places of identification, some homes are characterized by large number of young people with low standards of living due to low income earned due to issues like single parenting. The low income earned in a household leads to a one meal assumption in some household and sometimes never, lack of school fees, domestic violence among other factors.

During this period of the lockdown, we received reports from many children and young people especially girls who have been exposed to sexual violence and abuse including commercial sex and transactional sex in order to survive and meet the basic needs of their families/caregivers who are unemployed due to closure of business in the lock down. Majority were sexually exploited hin exchange for food and other basic needs like clothing, food, shelter and sanitary pads especially in the informal settlement and slums. It has been revealed that even the children who had been rehabilitated and in the process of recovery from sexual exploitation were on the verge of relapsing back to illicit activities in order to provide resources to their families. The young people who were previously gainfully employed before the lock down and those who had business enterprises have collapsed which affects the livelihood of the families.

Livelihood

The pandemic has greatly affected slum youth and majority of them needed an immediate response away from the long-term livelihood empowerment. Strategies to try and contain the spread of the deadly Corona Virus, exposed our beneficiaries and their families that depended on the hand to mouth approach for survival as they spent several months under lockdown unable to move out to make some money. Our social workers received alarming reports of hunger and starvation, piling rent debts, illness, exploitation of children; physical, emotional, sexual etc. Children reported being victimized by their parents, relatives and elders who were supposed to be protecting them. Some were forced into early marriages by their families who expected financial gains in terms of bride for material benefits e.g. sanitary pads, food, clothing etc. Parents became burdened by the needs of their children as even those who had been sent away to boarding schools came home when schools closed. It became clear for UYDEL that there was need to provide urgent response to counter the status quo. Beneficiaries and their families needed immediate response to their needs for purposes of survival and to improve their general welfare. As social workers we resonate with James Midgley when he says that social welfare is achieved where social problems are managed when human needs are met and when social opportunities are maximized. UYDEL partners responded in terms of food relief items for the slum youth and their families, personal protective equipment (PPE) e.g. face masks, hand sanitizers, hand washing cans and soap, and cash transfers for those who were most affected. We assessed all the 1500 UYDEL beneficiaries receiving vocational skills training at the five safe spaces using a survey questionnaire to identify those who were most affected by the COVID 19 Pandemic. The criteria for eligibility for cash-transfers was determined basing on; youth who were most vulnerable, those who needed immediate response, those who had been rendered homeless or yet to be rendered homeless, including those from child headed households. Overall 662 youth received the cash transfers for boosting their businesses that had crumbled during the lengthy lockdown and others used the funds to obtain food relief and clear rent debts that had accumulated during the lock down when they were not making any income.

Why Cash Transfers?

Cash transfers reduce monetary poverty, stimulate health service use and improve dietary diversity (Zanker et al. 2016). Cash transfers are associated with a reduction in child labour, increase women’s decision-making power and choices, foster beneficiaries’ economic autonomy and raise school attendance. In recent years, cash transfers have been increasingly adopted as key elements of national poverty reduction and social protection strategies. Such schemes are increasingly popular in sub-Saharan Africa, where 40 out of 48 countries now have a UCT programme (Zanker, et al. 2016). Over 600 youth supported with emergency cash transfers /cash subsidies to enable them meet their basic needs, build basic capital for their business after lock down and support their families. In the long run we anticipate a reduction in youth engagement in crime and in-decent work for survival.

Impact of the cash transfers

UYDEL designed a comprehensive support mechanism for vulnerable slum youth and their families worst hit by the Pandemic. We realized communities required immediate response to issues of hunger, domestic violence, and homelessness intended as a stop gap measure to help the many daily wage laborers living in the slums that have been struggling as their work dried up. We also conducted massive sensitization and awareness within the communities to increase the knowledge of youth experiencing homelessness regarding the Corona Virus and gender-based violence resulting from the extended lockdown period.

We recorded sustained increase in assets among youth who received the transfers, earnings, food security, psychological well-being, and reduction in domestic violence after about four months when transfers ended. Majority of the beneficiaries used the cash transfer funds to obtain basic needs at home for survival at home as some parents couldn’t provide food, soap, charcoal at home. Others used it to pay business rent; salon, manicure and pedicure business, retail shop, library and printeries. We also supported teenage mothers whose husbands were not able to provide child support. Others injected some of the money in small retail businesses.

Lessons learned

YEH in terms of crisis such as the COVID 19 are far worse affected. Evidence suggests that cash transfer as one element of social protection systems that plays a crucial role in lifting YEH out of poverty and improving their well-being. These programmes can act as buffers against shocks, minimizing use of negative coping strategies such as withdrawing children from schools, sending them to work, or selling productive assets such as livestock. Positive results were recorded ranging from improved nutrition to reduced risky behaviours such as unsafe sex, multiple partners and early sexual debut for girls. Support of donors to increase resource is key due to lack of a welfare state.

Social workers require intensive training regarding response during period of crisis to ensure that rights of children are not violated during response interventions during crisis management. The training should empower social workers and other crisis managers with capacity building in the social work principle of individualization, purposeful expression of feelings, controlled emotional involvement, acceptance, non-judgmental attitude, client self-determination, and confidentiality. They also need training in other therapeutic packages including motivational interviewing.

Acknowledgement

We are grateful to the Rapid Response Fund, the Oak Foundation, Professor Mary Jane Rotheram, the Lutheran World Federation, Bread for the World, ECPAT France, PLAN International and other partners for the support extended to homeless youth.

References

Auerswald, C. L., Adams, S., & Lightfoot, M. (2020). The Urgent and Growing Needs of Youths Experiencing Homelessness During the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 67(4), 461–462. resource link
Dallas Rogers & Emma Power (2020) Housing policy and the COVID-19 pandemic: the importance of housing research during this health emergency, International Journal of Housing Policy, 20:2, 177-183, DOI: 10.1080/19491247.2020.1756599