The COVID-19 Pandemic is a public health, social and economic crisis that is global in scale. With restrictions on travel and movement, civil society and humanitarian organizations play a critical role in supporting governments to respond. All people should remain safe from sexual exploitation and abuse while receiving humanitarian aid, including health services and treatment, without abuse or exploitation. If sexual exploitation or abuse does occur they should have access to safe and confidential reporting channels and services.
Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) must be integrated into the response to COVID-19. As with any emergency, PSEA prevention and response should be a central part of coordinated humanitarian action. The crisis does not create new responsibilities; rather, PSEA actions during the COVID-19 pandemic should strengthen existing PSEA commitments to protect and assist people receiving humanitarian assistance.
As seen in previous public health emergencies, when the humanitarian response scales up the risk of SEA increases. Women and children in particular face heightened protection risks. The surge in new responders (including non-traditional humanitarian responders) combined with high demand and an unequal supply of food and health supplies increases risks.1
Children are at particular risk of potential harm where school closures interrupt school-based services and interventions for at-risk children. Greater difficulties in accessing health services, as well as increased burdens and separation from caregivers (due to quarantines, or severe illness/death), may lead to SEA against children, in particular girls, including child/forced marriage or transactional sex.2
Disruption to livelihoods, public services and the freedom of movement can exacerbate SEA risks for already-vulnerable populations, such as refugees, migrants and internally displaced people, as well as the marginalized. Scarce resources, in particular access to health services, may result in a concentration of power which could be wielded to the detriment of people in vulnerable situations. Food shortages, induced by the health emergency, can also increase vulnerabilities and lead to negative coping strategies, thereby increasing risk of SEA.
The use of isolation measures may limit access to information on PSEA, and restrict the access of SEA victims to reporting channels and GBV and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services.3
COVID-19 has resulted in travel restrictions which affect aid workers, reducing access to affected populations due to curfews and stay-at-home orders. In accordance with their responsibilities, humanitarian agencies and the HCT/UNCT should work together to organize the following areas of work.4
The contributions of national and local partners should increase; however, even local stakeholders may contend with more limited face-to-face engagement. The recommended actions below may therefore need to be adapted to be carried out remotely, online, through partnership, as well as other means.