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Pandemic increased sexual exploitation of girls, reports new study by nuns

By Ivan Fernandes |

The COVID-19 pandemic which began at the end of 2019 has caused "serious hardship" relating to domestic violence, sexual abuse, increased child labor exploitation and mental health to children and adolescents, particularly girls, says a new study by nuns from four congregations.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco, the Comboni Missionary Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions collaborated on a study entitled How are the girls? All four congregations have been working for decades in support of children and girls in the most vulnerable communities in resource-deprived countries, and is at the core of their mission.

The study looks into how Covid affected the lives of girls in Ecuador, Peru, South Sudan, Kenya, India and Nepal. The quantitative research involved 3,443 adolescent girls in those six countries, selected among participants in the congregations' programs. The findings of the study were released at the headquarters of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in Rome December 7.

Social dimension problems

A key highlight that emerged from the study, is the significant difference in the incidence of child labor. More than 20% of girls under 15 years of age versus 5% of girls between 15 and 18 report having being engaged in child labor. While generally, for one out of six girls, there has been a decrease in the number of daily meals since the beginning of the pandemic, currently about 10% of girls live eating less than two meals a day. Less than 30% of girls report having witnessed at least occasional conflicts at home during the COVID-19 lockdown, and more than half of them say that this has changed with respect to before the pandemic. More than 60% of girls reported a sense of worry, and half of them have experienced sadness.

The results show that more than 35% of girls experienced serious or very serious hardship during the pandemic, with 100% of girls having experienced a serious or very serious hardship being 15 years or older. Among those who experienced very serious hardship, 80% live in Africa (Kenya or South Sudan), and 64% live in rural or remote areas. Among those who experienced serious hardship, 43% live in Africa, 39% live in Asia, and 18% live in South America. Across all the countries, the concentration of girls suffering from serious hardship is the highest in rural and remote areas.

Sexual Exploitation, violence

Many girls felt compelled to engage in sexual and commercial exploitation in order to meet their basic needs, exchanging sex for food, menstruation pads and other basic hygiene items such as soap, the study reported. Girls also reported an increased use of physical punishment as a means of discipline and reported sexual violence and incest within families and online. The rise in teenage pregnancy was attributed to several factors, including increased sexual exploitation and sexual violence, as well as a rise in consensual sexual activity and enhanced barriers to accessing health services.

Commonly reported forms of violence that were most cited during and after COVID-19 were online abuse and harassment, domestic violence, including experiencing violence at home, sexual and commercial exploitation.

Overall, girls testified that they had seen an increase in child marriage as a result of the pandemic, with many stories coming from India, Nepal as well as South Sudan. In some cases, marriage was considered as a way to cope with the economic downturn brought about by COVID-19. Marrying off girls was seen as a solution in the context of strained household finances, the study said. Participants from India commented about how gender discrimination affected girls and their welfare in a country where girls were seen as "a burden" and so it was thought that marrying off girls during the pandemic and with the related restrictions was going to be cheaper.

Invaluable data to policy makers

"We are getting a snapshot of the world" by the information the girls' reported regarding their experience during Covid, said Sister Patricia Murray, UISG Executive Secretary, during the launch of the report, with others joining the event online from around the world.

Sister Orietta Pozzi, a member of the Project Core Team and the Comboni World-wide Foundation, expressed the hope that the study would offer invaluable data to policy makers and to find adequate ways to respond.

Mathilde Gutzenberger, a member of the Research Coordination Team and Senior expert in Gender and Children Rights, said what emerged in the study were: learning loss, poverty and food insecurity, mental health issues, increased violence (including sexual and domestic) and higher levels of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation also became an issue, primarily in cases where parents lost their jobs. Many girls reported feelings of sadness and worry, increased mental and economic stress, which will have a lasting effect, she said. "Over all, nothing new has been discovered but the pre-existing problems and inequalities were exacerbated, thus worsening whatever situation a girl found herself in," she said.

Maria D'Onofrio, Advocacy Officer IIMA & VIDES Human Rights Office, Geneva said the study "opened new windows and opportunities, including better human rights implementation, participation and the empowerment of local actors".

Sister Winifred Doherty, Main Representative to UN, Good Shepherd International Justice and Peace Office, New York, said the report has made otherwise "invisible" girls, visible and that "a big outcome shows that intervention with girls at the grassroots through intervention and social services does make a difference".Click here to read the report of the impact of COVID-19 on girls.


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