Before COVID-19 forced Ethiopia to close its schools in March 2020, Merhawit, 16, was at the top of her class in physics. When conflict erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020, she hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom for eight months. She walked 200 miles in broken flip flops, her baby brother strapped to her back, to escape the violence.
With no end in sight to the conflict — and no timeline for reopening schools, many of which are being used to shelter families displaced by the fighting — Merhawit spends most of her time searching for food.
Millions of children and their families continue to face violence and deprivation
UNICEF spokesperson James Elder met Merhawit during a recent field visit to assess the crisis in Ethiopia and UNICEF's ongoing response. So far UNICEF has reached 425,000 people through its humanitarian relief efforts, but the scope of the country's needs are far greater. More than 3 million people have been displaced, and vulnerable children and families continue to face grave risks to their health and safety.
“We have been very concerned from the onset about the harm this crisis will cause to children,” Elder said during a press briefing shortly upon his return to Geneva. “Such fears are now being realized.
"This is a protection crisis. What is emerging is a disturbing picture of severe and ongoing child rights violations ... The personal statements I have received from children who had been raped or testimonies of women who were victims of sexual violence were harrowing ... I heard traumatic stories from survivors, one as young as 14. I heard reports of gang rapes. The level of cruelty described in these attacks was bewildering."
At one site UNICEF supports, from January through mid-April, an average of three cases of gender-based violence were reported per day.
Poor conditions at displacement sites magnify the risks of child exploitation
Overcrowded, unsanitary and generally poor conditions at displacement sites magnify the risks of exploitation, and "make it impossible for people to practice COVID-19 prevention measures," Elder added. "From a health perspective, the presence of large numbers of displaced people is a ticking time bomb, especially as the rainy season approaches — that’s next month — when there will be a grave risk of cholera and other waterborne diseases."
As long as the fighting continues, access and security will remain serious issues, Elder said. Violence and looting have caused "extensive destruction" to health clinics, water systems and other critical infrastruture, crippling essential services and creating "an education and nutrition emergency."
UNICEF is working to protect children from an education and nutrition emergency
Conflict interrupted the 2020 harvest, erasing farmers' income for the whole year. Many had cattle stolen. It is time to start planting again, but farmers are displaced and can't access their land, or get fertilizer and other supplies.
"We are seeing a spike in malnutrition in a region that had already seen steep year-on-year increases in malnourished children requiring lifesaving treatment prior to this crisis," Elder said. Malnutrition among pregnant and lactating mothers is also on the rise.
Here are some of the ways UNICEF is reaching vulnerable children and families in Tigray
Key components of UNICEF's response include:
- dispatching mobile health and nutrition teams to provide emergency medical care, immunizations, therapeutic food and other support, including screening and treatment for severe acute malnutrition
- leading efforts to rehabilitate damaged or nonfunctioning water systems and otherwise replenishing safe water supplies by trucking it in or treating local sources
- assisting survivors of sexual assault with medical and psychosocial support and dignity kits
- deploying social workers to manage child protection cases, which includes reuniting separated children with their families
- establishing temporary learning spaces for refugees, internally displaced children and children in host communities and providing learning materials
With humanitarian access opening up, UNICEF has revised its response plan to better match population needs. UNICEF’s Tigray Emergency Response Plan through September 2021 aims to reach 2.8 million people, including 1.3 million children, but it remains significantly underfunded.
Help UNICEF step up its humanitarian work in Ethiopia. Your contribution can make a difference.
Top photo: Mulu, 3, in treatment at the stablization center at Mai Tsebri Primary Hospital in Tigray, Ethiopia, drinks therapeutic milk provided by UNICEF as part of the ongoing humanitarian response in the embattled region. “I am glad that she is in good hands here,” says her mother, Teje, who made the hourlong journey to the hospital on foot, concerned about her daughter's vomiting and diarrhea. UNICEF is supporting health facilities serving those who have been displaced by the conflict, providing packets of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) in addition to therapeutic milk, among other lifesaving supplies. © UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Demissew Bizuwerk