Deafening silence and uncertainty in Afghanistan

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As parts of the country have locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the situation has become even more dire for internally-displaced children

By Omid Fazel

The hidden victims. The ultra-vulnerable. Millions of the world’s internally displaced children have lost access to their schools, health services, their homes and communities. In Afghanistan, these young lives, already defined by enormous vulnerability, are being upended once again by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crowded living quarters, limited to no access to clean water and sanitation, and severely curtailed health care all increase the risk of the coronavirus spreading among displaced communities, yet all are a daily reality for many displaced Afghan families. These same families are also often cut off from mass communications, meaning they miss out on lifesaving public health messages.

UNICEF and partners are on the ground working to ease the dire conditions faced by internally displaced families, helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the devastation to these already fragile communities.

Just a couple of months ago, this child-friendly space at the Hazrat Bilal camp for internally displaced persons in Balkh Province was a lively place where children could gather safely to chat, play and learn. Those happy sounds have been replaced by a deafening silence since the space was closed to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading.

Millions of children are currently missing out on learning due to the lockdown. Facilitators such as 18-year-old Nazifa are going door-to-door to displaced families’ homes to increase awareness of COVID-19 and share information on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Young women and girls already face underlying gender and age-related barriers that make it harder for them to access essential services, information, support, and safety. These vulnerabilities will be exacerbated by COVID-19. School closures, for example, make young girls more vulnerable to abuse. For young girls, including those who are internally displaced, schools can be a safe space where the watchful eyes of teachers and other adults can spot signs of abuse.

A pandemic like this also presents unique challenges that can increase the number of child marriages. Because poverty is a known driver of child marriage – with families more likely to marry off daughters in times of economic stress to alleviate the perceived burden of caring for them – the anticipated economic fallout of COVID-19 could result in many more early marriages.

Already surging poverty levels, ongoing violence and natural disasters have fueled Afghanistan’s displacement crisis and left hundreds of thousands of Afghans particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of a respiratory disease like COVID-19, which could spread easily through the overcrowded confines of many settlements.

Internally displaced families in Herat, in western Afghanistan, are among those that have received soap distributions. UNICEF has reached thousands of internally displaced children with soap supplies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.