search advanced search
UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
search menu

COVID-19: Children at heightened risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence

New technical guidance to help strengthen protection measures for children during pandemic

Children play in the Reception and Identification Centre in Moria, on the island of Lesvos, in Greece. The situation for refugee and migrant children on the Greek islands remains dire and dangerous.

NEW YORK, 20 March 2020 – Hundreds of millions of children around the world will likely face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing – including mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers – because of actions taken to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF is urging governments to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children amidst the intensifying socioeconomic fallout from the disease. The UN children’s agency, together with its partners at the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, has released a set of guidance to support authorities and organizations involved in the response. 

In a matter of months, COVID-19 has upended the lives of children and families across the globe. Quarantine efforts such as school closures and movement restrictions, while considered necessary, are disrupting children's routines and support systems. They are also adding new stressors on caregivers who may have to forgo work.

“In many ways, the disease is now reaching children and families far beyond those it directly infects”

Stigma related to COVID-19 has left some children more vulnerable to violence and psychosocial distress. At the same time, control measures that do not account for the gender-specific needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls may also increase their risk of sexual exploitation, abuse and child marriage. Recent anecdotal evidence from China, for instance, points to a significant rise in cases of domestic violence against women and girls.

“In many ways, the disease is now reaching children and families far beyond those it directly infects,” said Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection. “Schools are closing. Parents are struggling to care for their children and make ends meet. The protection risks for children are mounting. This guidance provides governments and protection authorities with an outline of practical measures that can be taken to keep children safe during these uncertain times.”

People wear face masks as they wait to enter a children's hospital in Phnom Penh, after the first case of novel coronavirus was reported in the country.

Increased rates of abuse and exploitation of children have occurred during previous public health emergencies. School closures during the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, for example, contributed to spikes in child labor, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, cases of teenage pregnancy more than doubled to 14,000 from before the outbreak.

As part of the guidance, the Alliance is recommending that governments and protection authorities take concrete steps to ensure protection of children is integral to all COVID-19 prevention and control measures, including:

  • Train health, education and child services staff on COVID-19 related child protection risks, including on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse and how to safely report concerns;
  • Train first responders on how to manage disclosure of gender-based violence (GBV Pocket Guide), and collaborate with healthcare services to support GBV survivors;
  • Increase information sharing on referral and other support services available for children;   
  • Engage children, particularly adolescents, in assessing how COVID-19 affects them differently to inform programming and advocacy;
  • Provide targeted support to interim care centres and families, including child-headed households and foster families, to emotionally support children and engage in appropriate self-care;
  • Provide financial and material assistance to families whose income generating opportunities have been affected; and
  • Put in place concrete measures to prevent child-family separation, and ensure support for children left alone without adequate care due to the hospitalization or death of a parent or caregiver; and,
  • Ensure the protection of all children is given the utmost consideration in disease control measures.

Research Projects

Children and migration: rights, advocacy and resilience
Research Project Research Project

Children and migration: rights, advocacy and resilience

Children cross borders – within and between countries – in varying circumstances and for different reasons, both voluntary and involuntary. Economic, socio-political and environmental factors can influence children and their parents’ decision to migrate. Poverty has also been a key driver of child migration, particularly from rural to urban locations, but it’s becoming clearer that the poorest cannot so easily migrate to another country. Children are also trafficked to provide labour or are forced to move because of political violence or environmental disasters.Although domestic migration of children occurs frequently, it is often incorrectly perceived as an everyday phenomenon. International migration of children is now more visible, and because of conflict-induced migration, it is understood as distinct and traumatic. Mobility pathways deeply impact on a child’s development and we need to gain better understanding of their  migration patterns.While vast amounts of data now exist chronicling the lives of migrants, we have less understanding of the movement of young people. Child-sensitive research in this area is essential and can explain intricate dynamics not captured by more general research. Historically, receiving, transit and origin societies have been more tolerant of the migration of children and youth. Some have an exploitative interest in child migrants and others recognize that the international community must commit to protecting child migrants.Our new programme builds on Innocenti’s existing expertise and UNICEF’s work on the ground with children in the areas of protection, justice, violence prevention and well-being.


Protected on Paper? An analysis of Nordic country responses to asylum-seeking children
Publication Publication

Protected on Paper? An analysis of Nordic country responses to asylum-seeking children

This research, commissioned by the Nordic National Committees for UNICEF, examines to what extent the rights of asylum-seeking children are respected and protected in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The report reviews relevant national legislative and policy frameworks; examines how these are implemented; documents good practices; and highlights gaps in national standards and their compliance to international standards. It makes some broad recommendations on how to strengthen and extend legal, policy and practice frameworks to ensure the full realization and protection of child asylum seekers’ rights and entitlements in the Nordic region. It further provides country-specific detailed, practical recommendations on how to ensure protection and welfare for asylum-seeking children. It makes country-specific recommendations on how legal, policy and practice frameworks can be strengthened to ensure full protection of children’s rights and entitlements.


International guidelines and recommendations
Protection of children during the coronavirus disease pandemic