In 2019, Friends-International programs delivered over 2 million life-saving services to children, youth and families at risk.
However, 2020 has added a major risk factor to the many we already address – the global onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April a UN report on the impact of COVID-19 on children highlighted the need for a wide range of responses, reiterated in an impassioned plea from the Secretary General.
The report (download here) set out the range of risks linked to the pandemic which place children in jeopardy. Health is of course an immediate risk in any pandemic. There are also impacts which will have long term ramifications for many – UNICEF estimate that an additional 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year, adding to the estimated 386 million children already in extreme poverty (2019). 188 countries have also imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth. Already marginalized families are facing economic hardship on an immense scale.
Protection and Prevention In Local Communities
We first adapted and developed our existing approaches. This was to make sure they reflected the special circumstances of the current situation. Not only the children and families we work with, but also our staff and volunteers needed to be kept safe.
We created a specific in-house COVID-19 task force which rapidly developed and rolled out training for all staff and ChildSafe Agents, plus COVID-19 protocols for our programs. We adapted materials provided by WHO and UNICEF to meet the needs of our target groups. Then we shared training and resources with our ChildSafe Alliance and 3PC partners, and with them we began delivering protection and prevention messages directly into communities.
Families and children have been supported to fully understand the importance of these messages. Easily understood and visible materials, such as posters, are on display in communities. Hygiene materials, some donated by local businesses, have also been distributed by our staff . As schools closed and tourism stopped we redeployed staff from our education and social business projects to support community work, and continued to provide education materials and teacher support directly into communities.
By training volunteer ChildSafe Agents from the local community we also ensure there is a protection and prevention presence 24/7 in communities. Regular refresher training ensures that the Agents are aware of any changes to protocols. This goes alongside a continued rapid full-time hotline response. Any concerns over risks to, or abuses of, children can get an immediate response.
Still Reaching Out
Making sure we meet local authority guidelines and restrictions, we are safely continuing our outreach work wherever possible. This includes ensuring families are getting all the support they need, including food. Our social workers are continuing to provide core services when and where needed, including education and counseling. Again where possible, our drop-in centers are still open. They give advice, support and act as food distribution points.
Many families are hit hard through unemployment. They have little or no income coming in. Our Futures programs have been advising people on alternative employment opportunities that may be available, and training to support those.
Building For The Future
We are also working hard on how we can best continue to build futures, particularly for youth, as we transition to a ‘new normal’. We’ve been planning and implementing new ways to engage and support those who need it most, refocusing vocational training for example, changing curricula and approaches to be most effective under these circumstances. We are also implementing online learning opportunities with access to technology. Examples of the coordinated approach to supporting youth are the new ‘Futures For You’ project and the recent relaunch of Futures Factory in Phnom Penh.
The International Approach – New Campaign!
With many restrictions on international travel in place, our global child protection ChildSafe campaign focus is now on families – child protection begins at home! Lockdown restrictions in many countries mean families are spending most of their time together, often with limits on space and activities. So, in late March we conceived, developed and launched a new campaign in record time. We call it ‘7 Tips for Families During Lockdown’ . It provides a range of links to support the mental and physical health and well being of families who are together in challenging circumstances. The campaign has been designed to be flexible to adapt to post-lockdown transition periods and longer term family support. We’re also encouraging people to ‘Join the Movement’. They can do this by sharing these resources, plus contribute themselves to the campaign. In addition, we put together a specific range of Tips for Kids which have been adapted by country programs.
After a global launch in English, French, Khmer and Thai campaigns have been created. Other languages will follow.
Facing The Challenges Ahead
Adaptability whilst keeping the quality and impact of our services is the key to our response. Of course this is very challenging as funding is being cut everywhere in a very uncertain world. As donors have withdrawn and safety measures have taken precedent we have had to make some very hard decisions in recent months. We have had to lose programs, projects and staff as a result. Our own flexible income streams from social businesses such as our training restaurants are simply not there at the moment, and we will have to carefully and strategically rebuild these.
We will, with the dedication of the #everydayheroes in our teams and our great supporters, come through this. We have begun planning for that day too, exploring through our Futures employment projects the best approaches to ensuring there will be training, jobs, opportunities and support for those who need it most, and of course we hope that our wonderful supporters will be able to play a role in ensuring that the work of Friends-International can go on when the COVID-19 pandemic has finally been beaten –
‘Together, building futures’
(to support the work of Friends-International, please visit – https://friends-international.org/covid-appeal/)