POLYCRISIS - 13 August 2023

Impact of the polycrisis: how do we protect and care for children?

Multiple, simultaneous crises are occurring around the world. From the continuing rumbling effects of COVID-19 and extreme cost-of-living pressures to the numerous complex and protracted wars, the climate crisis and natural disasters. Strongly interconnected, these overlapping crises are having disastrous impacts on those who are most vulnerable. Children and young people – in particular those who don’t have, or who are at risk of losing, parental care – are all too often caught in the middle, facing the direst consequences.

Working in more than 130 countries globally, SOS Children’s Villages is present in many of the world’s most difficult places, where a myriad of factors, including war and violence, intersect to create extreme trauma. Many of the countries experiencing some of the worst effects of these compounded crises are seen as being the most unstable. Somalia, for example, ranks highest on the International Rescue Committee’s 2023 Emergency Watchlist[i], with countries including Haiti, South Sudan and Syria also in the top ten.

“Polycrisis today is a significant factor disrupting the life of many communities around the world, not only in the poorest continent, Africa, but also in Asia, Latin America, and here in Europe,” says Dr Dereje Wordofa, President of SOS Children’s Villages International. “When communities are affected and societies are displaced, or going through hardship, children always remain the hardest hit because they are the most vulnerable segment of the population.”

Studies show that over 2.4 billion children[ii], suffering from inequality, exclusion and deprivation, are still in need of adequate social protection. The polycrisis has only worsened the historic disadvantages that many children continue to face. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in around 10.5 million children[iii] losing the care of an adult.

As the National Director for SOS Children’s Villages in Haiti, Faimy Carmelle Loiseau is all too familiar with the struggle of caring for children and supporting families amid the chaos of multiple, layered crises. 

“Haiti had economic problems already. It had political problems. However, we used to live in peace. But now with insecurity, where you have gangs surrounding the city, this is different because even the government or the police department do not really know what to do,” Ms Loiseau says.

Haiti has a troubled political history and is prone to natural disasters. However, the current situation is unprecedented. A series of crises, starting with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, have combined to create an intensely complex situation, in which violence is spiralling and food poverty is soaring.

“Life is extremely difficult, especially for families who were facing hardship before this latest crisis,” Ms Loiseau explains. “Families with single parents, many whom have no chance to find work in the current crisis, are struggling. They have no money to buy food or other necessities.”

The country’s economy has collapsed, and the restriction of access to food and water by armed groups, combined with high inflation and a lack of rain, has led to food scarcity. It is estimated that 4.7 million people[iv] – close to half the population – are struggling to get enough food. As so often happens, those who bear the brunt of the impacts are children, and in particular those who don’t have parents or who live in families are at risk of breakdown.


Intensified threats to children

While an extreme example, what is happening in Haiti is not unique. Many countries are now experiencing interwoven and multi-layered catastrophes. Those worst affected by the polycrisis are communities who were already struggling with poverty, and in particular the children who are most vulnerable. As Dr Wordofa, states:

“Children without parental care or who are at risk of losing parental care are particularly impacted by multiple but also compounded crises. War and armed conflict are affecting many communities around the world, from Ukraine to Sudan, Ethiopia to Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Drought and floods, which are induced by climate change, are also impacting people. And importantly, the economic hardship in many communities today because of hyperinflation and the high cost of living is another factor.”

Without a safe, loving and secure home environment and adults to protect them, entangled crises only increase the vulnerability of the children who SOS Children’s Villages works for.  At the same time, the numerous additional stresses placed on families who are already at a breaking point, makes children susceptible to losing the parental care that they have.

The overlaying crises in Haiti and elsewhere, are having profound impacts on children. Children who are living away from the relative security of a family home, without an adult who is there for them, are often on the streets and are susceptible to violence. Young boys in particular, are in danger of being recruited by armed gangs in Port-au-Prince. As Ms Loiseau stresses: “It's very difficult for them because the gangs have no mercy. Whether you’re a woman. Whether you’re a young person or an old person. Whatever they need to do, they will do it. A lot of gang members you find are young – adolescents and young kids.”

Parts of the Horn of Africa, Sahel and neighbouring countries are experiencing their longest drought on record. Combined with insecurity and high inflation in many places, this has led to a severe food crisis across several regions. This emergency is impacting tens of millions of children and young people. In the Central Sahel alone, it is estimated that more than seven million children will soon be suffering from severe hunger[v].

Evidence shows that food insecurity leads to increased vulnerability for children, a lack of food can push children into begging and sexual exploitation, where girls in particular face higher risk of abuse, violence and harassment.

“Somalia is a country facing the triple threats of prolonged drought and heightened food prices, ongoing armed conflict, and displacement leading to migration pressures”, says Abdikadir Dakane, SOS Children’s Villages’ National Director in Somalia. In a country where the majority of the population are either farmers or herders, the change in weather patterns due to climate change is having catastrophic consequences. The impacts of this are being felt the most keenly on children without parental care.

“Children who have both parents alive, tend to enjoy life with little worry,” says Mr. Dakane. “But children who have only one parent alive, or don't have either parent, will be prone to a lot of violence and exploitation. You will see a lot of children who are on the streets, a lot of children who are working, you will see a lot of children who are exploited. For example, you will find children who are recruited into armed groups and armed forces.” 

Driving families apart

Layering natural disasters and food shortages, on top of violent conflict and political or economic instability puts unbearable pressure on families already struggling to cope. In countries where poverty is rife, a loss of livelihood due to extreme weather events, displacement or violence, combined with inflationary pressures means families can break down because parents simply cannot provide and care for their children. In Haiti, the additional pressure of an economic crisis and food scarcity is bringing families to breaking point:

“You have big inflation – this also affects the family’s possibility to get money. These parents were already poor. Some of them may have lost their jobs because many people have left the country. Many businesses have been closed, so if businesses close, then there's no work. Food prices have also become very high, so food insecurity is really high lately in the country.”

Parts of northern Benin have faced increasing insecurity for several years[vi]. With the violence perpetrated by armed groups in particular affecting children and women. As well as experiencing one of the worst floods in recent memory in 2022, Benin is now also feeling the effects of the food crisis. As Salimane Issifou, National Director for SOS Children’s Villages there explains:

“Families in our country are suffering a lot because the price of every basic food type has skyrocketed, and this is making the lives of children and families very difficult.” The price of sugar, for example, has doubled, Mr Issifou explains.


Child marriage on the rise

Such extreme economic pressures can force parents to make unimaginable choices. In several countries experiencing crisis, as a last resort, families are marrying off their daughters at a young age or sending their children out to work to survive. In Somalia, girls as young as ten are getting married for the dowry money. In Bangladesh too, where climate impacts are overlapping with extreme poverty and cost-of-living pressures, this is a significant problem:

Dr Enamul Haque, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages in Bangladesh explains: “In most of the southern part of the country when it gets flooded, there is saline water everywhere. Because people have lost their families, parents have lost their properties and lost their lands, they don't have money to feed their children, they don't have money for their education. So, they are forced to child labour. It's estimated that 1.7 million children are under the child labour situation. Also, it is estimated that 60% of the girls are getting married under 18, the highest in Asia, and 22% below eleven years of age.”

In places experiencing war or extreme violence, many children have had one or both parents killed.  Displacement and migration ­– whether due to war, famine, natural disasters ­or a combination of factors – often results in children getting separated from their families. This is an issue in Somalia, but also in Haiti where many children have lost their parents due to the gang violence:

“Many people have been displaced because they [the gangs] invade their neighbourhoods. When they leave their houses, either their parents get killed in front of them, or maybe they have to be separated from their parents. So either they are in the streets or they move to another town and sometimes the parent cannot go with their kids.”

In Ukraine, the war is taking its toll, with children being particularly badly affected. An estimated 4.1 million children there require humanitarian support in 2023[vii]. Darya Kasyanova is National Programme Director for SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine. Originally from Donetsk, she lost her home in 2014 and had to move more than seven times to try and find somewhere safe to live. She explains how the need to protect children left in vulnerable and traumatic situations has multiplied:

“When we try now to compare the situation before the full invasion, it was only 1,000 children under supervision of SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine. And now every month it is about 25,000 beneficiaries. From the first day of the full-scale invasion, more than 494 children were killed, more than 6,000 children lost their families, and more than 19,000 children were deported to Russia.”

Impacting children’s health and access to education

One of the prevalent impacts of the polycrisis on children already at risk, is the lack of access to education. Extreme weather events such as floods destroy schools; displaced children end up in new areas where they cannot enrol in school or there is no school available; and economic pressures force children to leave education to work or get married. According to the UN, 222 million children around the world are affected by crisis, impacting their education.[viii] This disruption to children’s schooling has long-term consequences, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.

The toll of manifold crises on vulnerable children’s health is also a major issue. As Dr Haque explains: “Extreme temperatures have left many impoverished families with less food, less clean water, lower incomes and worsening health. Children’s immune systems are still in development and their rapidly growing bodies are more sensitive to disease and pollution.”

In addition to physical health concerns, mental health issues are particularly widespread in situations where multiple crises are at play, with many children experiencing extreme trauma.

”When you see kids living in that situation, that's a very difficult situation. Kids seeing their parents, their own parents or their neighbour, being killed in front of them, people being burned in front of them. You know that in the future those kids will have big mental health problems.” Ms Loiseau quietly discloses.


Protecting children

Amidst the chaos, in the places at the extreme end of these multiple crises, are the adults working to protect the children who are most vulnerable and support families. Despite the myriad challenges, people are striving to provide a safe, secure and loving environment for the children and young people most at risk.

In many cases, supplying the basics such as providing food and access to healthcare is an important start. In Haiti, some children come to the school run by SOS Children’s Villages simply to get a meal. However, as well as physically protecting children, caring for them emotionally and supporting them psychologically is vital. As Ms Kasyanova explains: The other very important direction for SOS Children’s Villages [Ukraine] is mental health and psychological support.”

In Bangladesh too, many children are suffering with their mental health due to the multiple crises. Counselling through professional psychologists is an essential part of the support provided to the children and their wider support network. While in Haiti, Ms Loiseau and her team are focusing on creating a safe environment for the children in their care:

“The children sometimes have TVs, they go to school outside, so they will hear what's happening. But we try to create a very friendly, safe area for them, so they can really feel safe” she explains. “Yes, this is happening outside, yes it is very difficult, but we don't want this to impact them. We try to make the children feel as though they can have a normal life – we send them to school, we put on fun activities for them. That's also why we have colleagues who are psychologists, we have social workers.”


Supporting families

A crucial part of helping to prevent families breaking down, particularly in such challenging circumstances, is to provide practical support. Supporting families to feed their children, or develop new skills in order to secure an alternative source of income is a way of ensuring families can get back on their feet. 

“70% of families we work with have requested food support because they don't have the means to afford their own food,” says Mr Issifou of Benin. “We are now developing other means of helping those families grow their own food. For example, in our villages, we have connected our toilets to create biogas and to create fertilizers also to grow fish. Going to the market to buy a bottle of gas costs, let's say, ten euro. Instead of that, the families have their own gas from their toilet and it's almost free of charge. At the same time, they can grow their fish, because with this system, we get worms that are used to feed fish.”

In Bangladesh, the flooding has impacted those who formerly relied on fishing as their livelihood. Supporting people to retrain means they can once again provide for their families:

“We provide skills training to mothers and young girls so that they can earn money to help support their families. We equip them by giving them sewing training and some materialistic support so that they can produce some products and sell them in the market. In that way we are supporting the community to build their resilience and improve their income generation,” explains Dr Haque. He recounts an example of a young person they have helped:  

“One boy was living in the slum area, where he had no hope.  He’s had a lot of trouble and we supported him. We gave him psychological, financial and material support so that he can dream big. Now he is a medical student – he can become a doctor who will be giving support to his own community, as well as Bangladesh as a whole.”

Empowering and supporting communities, and in particular the children themselves, ultimately helps to build resilience for those experiencing the worst of crisis situations. As Mr Dakane outlines:

“If we invest in children and if we invest in protective mechanisms for children, if we focus on engaging with the communities – empowering them, educating them, raising their awareness, building good schools – and then the government takes responsibility and they will be held accountable. This will really help. Children in Somalia are generally smart – they are really quick learners. They pick up things very fast and all they need is this kind of protective mechanism.”

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