UNICEF, Airtel Africa partner to support children and families affected by COVID-19

By Duncan Mlanjira

As millions of children are affected by school closures due to COVID-19, UNICEF announced a new partnership with Airtel Africa aimed at providing children with access to remote learning and enable access to cash assistance for their families via mobile cash transfers. 

Under this partnership, UNICEF and Airtel Africa will use mobile technology to benefit an estimated 133 million school-age children currently affected by school closures in 13 countries across sub- Saharan Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A statement from the two partners says the adverse effects of school closures on children’s learning are well documented. 

“Education experts warn that gains made in increasing access to learning in the previous decade are at risk of being lost, or even reversed completely,” says the statement.

“And for poor households around the world, the pandemic means a reduced or total loss of income due to the movement restrictions in place.”

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The statement adds that remote learning, supported by digital tools, is a core part of UNICEF’s response to ensure continuity of learning for those children with access to technology at home. 

Airtel Africa will zero-rate select websites hosting educational content, which will provide children with remote access to digital content at no cost.

“COVID-19 is affecting access to information and education at an unprecedented scale,” Fayaz King, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Field Results and Innovation, is quoted as saying. 

The most vulnerable in society

“Worldwide, most children are not in school, which we know can lead to a number of increased vulnerabilities and setbacks. 

“UNICEF is partnering with Airtel Africa to deliver better outcomes for children and families affected by widespread closures,” King said.

The partnership will also provide UNICEF with a means to facilitate vital cash assistance to alleviate financial barriers for some of the most vulnerable families across the region, including many affected by the growing socio-economic hardships resulting from suspension of income earning activities. 

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This will help ensure families have additional resources to cope with the ongoing health and economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some effective ways to cushion families from the effects of this crisis is through providing free Internet access to selected educational websites to help children keep up with their learning during the school closures and direct cash transfer programmes to reduce physical presence requirements for cash in hand exchanges,” said Raghunath Mandava, Airtel Africa Chief Executive Officer. 

“Alongside various other COVID-19 related initiatives and support that we are providing to Governments and the community, we are glad to also collaborate with UNICEF to support children.”

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The partnership with Airtel Africa supports UNICEF’s Global Agenda for Action for Children. 

The plan outlines global actions which private and public sector partners can take to keep millions of girls and boys — including those who have been uprooted by conflict, children living with disabilities, and girls at risk of violence — healthy, safe and learning.

UNICEF and Airtel Africa’s partnership aims to benefit children and families in 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa — Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. 

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. 

Across 190 countries and territories, UNICEF works for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. 

A recent report compiled by Child Rights Network, says government and development partners must scale up strengthening investment in several systems to allow Malawi to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak without compromising services which promote the protection of children.

Child Rights Network — that comprises Plan International Malawi, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages Malawi and World Vision International — highlights in the report that the pandemic will affect children’s access to education, healthcare services and other basic social and community services, negatively impacting on the gains achieved towards attaining the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. 

It says the pandemic will also cause untold economic distress and exacerbate poverty while exposing the children especially the girl child to abuse and violence.

“As child rights organizations, we are obliged to advocate for strategies and approaches to protect the most vulnerable children and ensure their rights are protected even during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the report.

It outlined some of the main threats to children that include in health, saying the Ministry of Health indicates that up to 50,000 Malawians could die if COVID-19 persists for a year and that 85% of the country’s population will become infected.

It says 483,000 would be hospitalized out of which 85,000 would be in need of critical care and 50,000 would die.

In education, following the closure of all schools and learning institutions, the report says “in one fell swoop and at the stroke of a pen, thousands of children all over the country were denied their right to learn”. 

“Even before the COVID-19 crisis, many children in Malawi were out of school so the school closures only compounded the situation.”

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It also touches on limited protection amid increase of violence against children, saying COVID-19 crisis exacerbates inequalities and places women, girls, and other vulnerable populations at a greater risk of violence. 

On food security and nutrition, over 80% of the population in Malawi is engaged in agricultural smallholder farming and contribute 75% to the food consumed in the country. 

But the recurring droughts, floods and negative impacts of climate change have adversely affected agricultural productivity because the farmers are not able to prepare land on time, buy seeds, access essential inputs and markets thus negatively impacting their and the country’s food entitlement, said the report.

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Key responses to the health observations include meaningfully involve children in the COVID-19 response and decision-making processes and prioritising information and communication needs of children and adolescents when rolling out inclusive national and community communication campaigns. 

Children and adolescents should be consulted to understand their concerns, fears and needs while developing child friendly communication tools; translate them into different local languages and disseminate using multiple channels.

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In education, there is the need to develop remote/distance learning facilities for continued safe, quality, inclusive and accessible learning from home for children.

Children’s rights obligations must remain in force in child protective systems even in emergencies and that Government and partners should support inputs, food subsidies, nutrition support and training of communities to produce food for community food banks whose food will be distributed to vulnerable families.

On social protection, Government must guarantee family income through strengthened social protection systems that include cash transfers and provide support to the ultra-poor and most vulnerable.

Because of refugees’ status and language barriers, Child Rights Network says there is a risk of refugee communities and children not being included in the national COVID-19 strategies, plans and  interventions.