Child protection in humanitarian settings during COVID-19: Learnings and resources

By Michelle Van Akin
December 14, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone, including children and families already affected by humanitarian crises. Globally, there have been increased reports of domestic violence, rates of child marriage and teen pregnancy as a result of the knock-on effects of the pandemic, as well as a loss of livelihood opportunities. Social isolation and confinement measures have also impacted the mental health of children and their caregivers, and rates of abuse and violence increased as women and children were confined to the home with their abusers.

This crisis revealed the need to improve the ability of child protection in humanitarian action (CPHA) professionals to respond to an infectious virus and to operate in a variety of different, rapidly changing contexts, with varying degrees of access. This approach required continuous, flexible, high-quality and accessible skills-building opportunities for CPHA practitioners — as well as increased reviews of safety and confidentiality processes and procedures, particularly for digital communication and learning. COVID-19 also required the sector to find innovative ways to deliver skills-building initiatives customized for the unique public health measures of each country.

As traditional means of delivering aid were at odds with public health guidelines, child protection specialists rapidly developed new guidance; however, there was an equally pressing need to invest resources in building the capacity of country-level child protection practitioners on these new ways of working. From March to April 2020 alone, the Child Protection Area of Responsibility helpdesks received 183 COVID-19 related requests for support, including preparedness and response planning, online training for remote delivery of case management and support on alternative care during COVID-19. An emphasis was placed on the need for capacity building resources and opportunities to be available both online as well as through more traditional, in-person modalities, as frontline workers who are most in need of these resources frequently do not have reliable access to the internet and may not have a laptop.

A helpdesk in South Sudan provides a place for girls and women to report protection-related issues.

The response

To respond to these needs, Plan International, in support of the Learning and Development Working Group (L&D WG) of the Alliance for CPHA, secured funding from USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs (BHA) to assess capacity gaps and develop and roll out capacity strengthening resources for CPHA practitioners to adapt to the COVID-19 context. To inform what resources were most urgently needed, a rapid CPHA capacity gaps assessment was implemented. The assessment focused on the primary CPHA capacity needs across various programmatic areas, the challenges in adapting child protection strategies, issues affecting quality response, the most suitable skills-building methodologies and online platforms/tools to fill those gaps during COVID-19. The assessment included an online survey that received 106 responses, key informant interviews with 22 CPHA practitioners from around the world and a review of 48 documents.

Key learnings

Several key capacity strengthening needs became apparent through the rapid capacity gaps assessment. CPHA practitioners reported needing practical support in adapting to remote modalities, particularly for psychosocial support, case management, family strengthening, community-level approaches and awareness raising and information dissemination. These resources needed to be practical — focusing on how to actually implement programming — and contextualized as much as possible. Adopting social learning approaches was stressed as key to both the successful engagement of CPHA practitioners as well as meaningful, long-lasting learning.

Results and resources

Plan took these findings and channeled them into nine learning modules. These learning modules were developed collaboratively with the relevant working groups and task forces of the Alliance of CPHA and colleagues across sectors. Topics spanned case management via phone to program continuity for activities supporting children associated with armed forces and armed groups. In general, the target audience for the trainings were CPHA staff — managers to support them in adapting programming or supporting their teams, or frontline child protection officers to guide them in implementing in a changed world.

However, the trainings didn’t only target child protection staff. At the height of the pandemic, there was a heavy reliance on community volunteers to support program continuity, given evolving public health measures and access restrictions. Knowing the weight this placed on volunteers, many of whom are from the communities they support, Plan also developed a learning module “Supporting Children, Families and Communities during COVID-19,” which was specifically tailored for community volunteers. This learning module was designed to be delivered in low-tech contexts and supports community volunteers as a key resource for their communities during the pandemic, mitigating the risk of stigmatization and avoiding family separations.

A separate module was specifically designed for child protection staff to deliver to health actors. The “Child Protection Mainstreaming in Health Facilities” package is targeted toward health actors, to strengthen their ability to maintain family unity and prevent separation if caregivers or children need to be quarantined.

Each learning module has been translated into French, Arabic and Spanish and includes instructions for both in-person and virtual facilitation. There is also a learning module on delivering training remotely, developed in response to the finding in the capacity gaps assessment that the quality of online learning was not on par with face-to-face trainings. Online learning requires a different set of pedagogical skills to make the knowledge and skills transfer valuable, and this has been a challenge for CPHA practitioners.

The release of these resources — including a Massive Open Online Course, a webinar series introducing the resources and an online learning series on digital platforms and apps that can be used for remotely delivering programming — is just the first step. Plan will continue to work with the Alliance of CPHA to ensure these resources are disseminated, used and adapted for the continuously evolving COVID-19 context.