By Ingrid Maria Johansen, Chief Executive Officer, SOS Children’s Villages International
Ingrid M. Johansen
One year ago, the lockdowns to fight the emerging pandemic began affecting our lives. Many have struggled to cope — be it from unemployment, school closures, the loss of a loved one or from loneliness. It has also meant finding out who is actually there for you when you need them the most.
For young people stepping out into the world, this year has been undeniably difficult. Imagine, as you transition into adulthood, having no one there for you — no family or support network, or perhaps your parent is too overwhelmed to provide you with the love and guidance you need. This is a reality for millions of young people today.
The global statistics are definitive: while the virus itself may not be a direct threat to children and youth, the social and economic impact of the pandemic certainly is, especially for those living in vulnerable circumstances. There are already reports of climbing poverty rates and deepening inequality in education. Meanwhile, the International Labour Organization, citing an employment loss among young people more than double that for adults, warns of a real risk of a “lost generation.”
For those who have experienced formal care or come from struggling families — an estimated one in every ten children today — these obstacles are often compounded. Take for example Kawtar, a care leaver from Morocco. She was getting ready to graduate and was eager to start an internship in the hospitality sector when the pandemic hit. She suddenly found the world and all its opportunities shut down. She returned to the youth house for a while, along with many other care leavers, where she says the stress was palpable.
Already before the pandemic, a survey commissioned by SOS Children’s Villages among nearly 2,000 young people in over 25 countries found that those who grew up without parental care were 1.5 times more likely to be unemployed and that they faced greater difficulties in securing full-time employment. Likewise, in a recent survey of participants of our youth employability programme YouthCan!, 52% said the main consequence of COVID-19 in their lives was unemployment, a worsening economy or difficulty in running a business.
COVID-19 has affected not only me but also my family. I used to work and study before and used to support my family financially (even if it wasn’t too much). Currently I don’t work; therefore, it’s all up to my mother. It’s been very difficult for her and for us to see her this way. She always strives to get ahead. That’s what it’s all about: to get ahead.
It is painfully clear that the pandemic is set to erase years of steady progress. Yet there is hope. We know it is possible to find opportunity in crisis and build a more sustainable and equitable future for tomorrow’s adults.
It starts with strengthening families so that children can grow up with stable relationships. In these difficult times, we must provide increased social protection services and direct financial support to struggling families so they can stay together. It is essential that we secure access to education for all children and youth and invest in reducing the digital divide. And we must not underestimate the mental health toll of the pandemic. Now more than ever, young people, especially those who have no one to fall back on, need psychological support, guidance and encouragement — from mental health professionals, caregivers, mentors and peers.
Yet above all, we must listen to children and young people’s voices and stay responsive to their needs in the face of uncertainty. We must foster youth networks and encourage a greater sense of ownership and control by supporting youth-led initiatives.
We at SOS Children’s Villages have collected promising experiences: our global YouthCan! employability programme is an innovative partnership between business and civil society. Young people from vulnerable backgrounds develop employability skills and corporate volunteers serve as mentors. By successfully shifting to an online format, the programme was able to support even more young people than we ever could have imagined. Kawtar was among them. Today, she is employed in the fast-food sector, but when businesses in Morocco re-open, she hopes to start an internship in the hospitality sector.
SOS Children’s Villages is determined to be an integral part of a coordinated global effort to support children and young people at risk and get the world on track towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the promises they offer. With nine years left on the clock, we must urgently come together: government, civil society, care providers, families and children.
On the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, as many wait for life to return to a “new normal,” we must not forget those uniquely challenged by the pandemic: the millions of children growing up alone. Our actions today are tomorrow’s legacy.