COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

Human rights and vulnerable youth in the time of COVID-19: challenges and lessons by the African Youth Front on Coronavirus

On 6 May 2020, the African Union (AU) Office of the Youth Envoy, with the support of the Commissioner of Social Affairs and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), established the African Youth Front on Coronavirus. This is an AU framework to engage youth in decision-making, to contribute youth-led solutions and co-lead Africa’s response to the pandemic, as well as to support the implementation of the African Continental Strategic Plan for COVID-19 pandemic.

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Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia
Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia

On 6 May 2020, the African Union (AU) Office of the Youth Envoy, with the support of the Commissioner of Social Affairs and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), established the African Youth Front on Coronavirus. This is an AU framework to engage youth in decision-making, to contribute youth-led solutions and co-lead Africa’s response to the pandemic, as well as to support the implementation of the African Continental Strategic Plan for COVID-19 pandemic.

The AU Office of the Youth Envoy has curated the concept of intergenerational co-leadership, which is a much-needed strategy to stimulate solidarity among generations and bring more youths to decision-making and leadership positions.

18 youth networks were identified from the 13 Virtual AU Youth Consultations Series on COVID-19, which convened over 400 youth leaders from 42 countries. This initiative is an innovation of the AU, creating more opportunities for young people’s participation and engagement as co-leaders, rather than merely recipients of responses that they did not co-create.

Since its inception, the Youth Front has developed several policy briefs and recommendations to assist the Africa CDC in its response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. These have included a policy brief on youth contributions to the Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing (PACT) in May, with proposals to support the Africa CDC in its goal to test 10 million Africans in six months; in June, circulating a survey in four languages (English, Swahili, French and Arabic), which gathered 1 130 responses, to assess the methods through which young Africans access COVID-19 information, the results of which were submitted to the Africa CDC for inclusion in the continental communication strategy; and consultations in June on the impact of COVID-19 on youths and their most immediate post-lockdown needs, the outcomes of which were also submitted to the Africa CDC.

In July, the African Youth Front on Coronavirus held consultations and meetings to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable young people. These discussions had the objectives of not only identifying the most critical challenges faced by vulnerable youth, but also proposing concrete and action-oriented recommendations for a variety of youth stakeholders. The consultations engaged by the Youth Front confirmed that the pandemic has had severe socio-economic effects on vulnerable youth in terms of increased unemployment, loss of livelihoods and wealth depletion. These discussions raised the following most critical challenges faced by vulnerable youth:

  1. Poor access to water-sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health services and protective equipment: Most vulnerable youth groups continue to be deprived of clean water, health services, handwashing facilities and basic sanitation. This is worse in townships, refugee camps and remote rural areas, where access to WASH since the outbreak of the pandemic has been lacking.
  2. Loss of livelihoods and lack of economic alternatives: The restrictions enforced by national governments and the global macro-economic slowdown severely crushed Africa’s informal economies and caused significant livelihood depletion and financial stress for households, especially those already living in vulnerable conditions.
  3. Rising domestic and gender-based violence: The pandemic has further exacerbated existing gender-based violence and domestic violence against women and children in a context where support to these victims of violence is already relatively low. Lockdown measures and movement restrictions have prevented people living with domestic abuse to gain access to life-saving safe spaces, and to get help and advice.
  4. Schools’ shutdown and impact on education: The temporary closure of schools has affected many young Africans. Some institutions mobilised a range of online learning material; however, vulnerable youth have limited access to e-education due to the ‘digital divide’. In addition, many of these structures do not take into consideration the intricacies of learning requirements for young people with special needs, and they are often excluded from the interventions.
  5. Rising threats of being victims of human trafficking: Due to the fragile economic situation of African youth caused by the pandemic, they have become even more at risk of being victims of debt bondage and forced labour, sexual exploitation and other forms of human trafficking.
  6. Lack of access to essential services for refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons (IDPs): Africa’s refugees, migrants and IDPs are some groups that are the most threatened by COVID-19. The limitations on movement, closure of borders and low levels of aid have increased their fragility in terms of access to food and healthcare services.

Young people have played an active role in building resilience and helping communities and public authorities to face the immediate consequences of the pandemic (the African Youth Front on Coronavirus has compiled some of these efforts on a Twitter thread). However, the needs of people most at risk, including those of the youth, are much more than what these initiatives can provide in terms of aid delivery. Based on this premise, the Youth Front has highlighted the following immediate recommendations as crucial to the recovery process, especially with regard to the most acutely affected communities:

  • Increased vigilance and structures to combat human trafficking: There is an immediate need for countries to develop responses that build on the protection from, prosecution of and prevention of all forms of exploitation, including underaged labour and abuse, human trafficking for forced sex work, etc.
  • Education and back-to-school support: Young people in vulnerable communities had poor access to education even prior to the pandemic. It is now imperative to create more structures catering to youth with special needs and disabilities, with flexible hours and educators who are trained to handle various specific learning challenges that may be faced by various categories of youth.
  • Inclusivity in the dissemination of information: Information dissemination structures need to be revamped, with more resources being allocated to targeting young people, who face greater barriers than their counterparts in accessing information. Some of these methods should include the development of strong offline communications in various communities, as well as communication channels for youth with disabilities.
  • Economic support and compensation for loss of livelihoods: Vulnerable youth have called for financial support, targeted employment opportunities, small loans and grants to improve their living conditions. These can be made possible by encouraging the establishment of food and commercial cooperatives between entrepreneurs from vulnerable communities, providing financial support for entrepreneurs, and cash relief packages as immediate support for families.
  • Food security and improved access to WASH services: Immediate actions include distributing balanced food baskets to communities to reduce the risk of food insecurity and malnutrition, and supporting farmers and herders in remote areas by organising donation operations of seeds, products and medicines for livestock. It is now also imperative to focus efforts on improving access to clean and safe water, hygiene products and protective supplies for vulnerable populations.

In conclusion, the African Youth Front on Coronavirus has expounded that the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health and economic crisis, but also a human rights crisis, further worsening the vulnerability of certain groups of youth. Therefore, young people are calling not only for service delivery, but also for their rightful place in society. Accordingly, the AU Office of the Youth Envoy has curated the concept of intergenerational co-leadership, which is a much-needed strategy to stimulate solidarity among generations and bring more youths to decision-making and leadership positions.

Chiamaka Nwachukwu is a medical doctor and coordinator of the Youth Front at the African Union Office of the Youth Envoy.

Raouf Farrah is a senior analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. He focuses on migration and criminal economies in North Africa and the Sahel and serves as a contributing member of the African Youth Front on Coronavirus.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

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