Are we going to die of hunger instead of coronavirus? A very real question street children and homeless youth around the world are asking themselves. They may not be among the most vulnerable to falling ill from the virus, but they are at unprecedented risk of undernutrition and malnutrition, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to health complications, and even death. Access to adequate, nutritious food has become a scarce luxury for them – yet it is a fundamental human right; something that governments have a legal obligation to protect and promote, especially during times of a pandemic.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, within the context of far-reaching restrictions on movement, what does this right mean for street-connected children and homeless youth? What can CSC Network Members do, who work daily and often directly with these street-connected children and homeless youth? How can organisations advocate for the protection of this right with their governments?
In this note, we explain the different ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic affects street-connected children and homeless youth in terms of their access to food, and what organisations can ask from governments to ensure that they can enjoy their right to adequate food. A section with additional information explaining what the right to food is and what government’s obligations are, can be found at the end.
During a pandemic, preserving, protecting and promoting a child’s right to adequate food is, and must be, a priority for everyone. Without adequate nutrition children will be at increased risk of falling ill and in the worst case at risk of dying from starvation.
How are street-connected children and homeless youth affected?
With the populations of most of the world’s cities confined indoors, and those on daily wages unable to work, many children and their families have lost their livelihoods. As a result of this, CSC Network Members in several countries (including Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka) report that children are struggling to find food to eat. For example, Safe Society in India reports that not only are the food stocks of families who are dependent on daily wages running out, food prices are also rising rapidly, pushing food even further out of reach for those in poverty. In Kenya, a boy speaking to CSC Network Member Glad’s House described what the curfew means for him: “Now that we are being told no one will be allowed to roam around the streets from 7pm, does it mean we are going to die of hunger instead of corona?”
Many street-connected children and their families depend on money earned from activities conducted on the streets on a daily basis, meaning their already minimal incomes are reduced to dangerously low levels when most people are indoors. As an example, CSC Network Member Grambangla Unnayan Committee drew attention to the situation of children who live at the water transport terminal in Barisal, Bangladesh. These children are dependent on selling tap water to passengers for their income, supplemented by food donated by the travellers. With no one moving through the terminal, these sources of food and income to buy food are completely lost.
During regional calls with CSC Network Members in West Africa, in East, Central and Southern Africa, in South and Southeast Asia, many organisations raised the same serious concerns about a lack of access to food among the children they are working with. One network member in Ghana described how a lack of adequate provision meant that hunger was in many ways a more pressing concern than COVID-19.
The difficulty in accessing food has been made worse by the fact that many non-governmental services are being forced to shut their doors, stop outreach work on the streets, or reduce their hours to comply with restrictions and protect their staff and users[i]. Other support systems have also been cut off. CSC partners in Tanzania, for example, warn that as schools are shut, children and families in street situations lose their main access to free daily meals, which may push them back onto the streets to find sources of income and food. In some cases, private businesses that previously donated food have abruptly stopped donations. According to CSC Network Member StreetInvest, for example, in Mombasa, a daily meal service for children on the street, provided by a local business, has been suspended without warning, leaving children hungry and with no other option for food.
At the same time, where possible, organisations in collaboration with government authorities, have stepped up provision of food relief. However, even where food aid is being provided, it may not be reaching families quickly enough, or in large enough quantities, according to the Virlanie Foundation in the Philippines. They pointed out that the 2 or 3kg packages of rice that are being distributed will only feed a family with several children for a few days. Problems accessing food and emergency relief interventions are further exacerbated by other challenges of living in precarious situations. In Manila, Virlanie Foundation distributed food to struggling families living in informal housing before two fires swept through the area in the space of a week, destroying their homes as well as the food supplies.
A CSC Network Member in Delhi, India, reported that the government there is distributing food, but is unable to access the centres of the slums, meaning many of the most vulnerable people are being left behind. Elsewhere, problems accessing food could be prevented if cash transfers designed to support the vulnerable reached the poorest people.
In practice, in many places emergency relief support is linked to addresses or official identity documents which those living on the streets often do not have, or to enrolment in existing government schemes. In India specifically, CSC Network Members report that a ration card system has been put in place to allow access to food, but the ration cards are only available to those with Aadhaar (national identity) numbers and bank accounts. As a result, those who are struggling the most remain without the means to buy food and other necessities. According to CSC members, children of migrant communities in India are also particularly at risk, as the inability to provide legal documents prevents them from accessing the governments’ emergency schemes. Other CSC Network members highlight similar issues. For instance, in Pakistan the government has been providing individuals falling below the poverty line with three months financial support of PKR 12,000/- per individual. However, in order to access the scheme, a person must have a Computerized Identity Card (CNIC), which most street-connected children and their families won’t have.
What to demand or request from your government?
Governments worldwide are addressing the food emergency supporting the most vulnerable populations with economic and food relief initiatives. Some examples of good practices by governments targeting vulnerable children include:
- The government of the Ivory Coast announced the establishment of the Fonds Spécial de Solidarité COVID-19, a special solidarity fund to support vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 emergency. The government included children in street situations among the beneficiaries of the fund.[ii] UNICEF, who has recently donated food and non-food material to the Ivorian Ministry of Women, Family and Children in support of vulnerable children during the pandemic, will also support the Ministry’s special protection programme for street-connected children with CFAF 64.2 million funding.[iii]
- The Scottish Government has provided local authorities with £30 million from the Scottish Government Food Fund to support children and families unable to access food as a result of COVID-19 and in particular, during school closures.[iv]
However, these are isolated initiatives. An overwhelming majority of the global population of street-connected children and youth are excluded from the governments’ special protection policies and emergency relief. In most cases, local authorities do not have a record of these children and their families in public registers. Even where children are registered with local authorities, they are often unable to prove their identity. Lack of birth registration and other ID documents makes these children legally invisible, and excluded from social protection programmes, including emergency relief.
The following recommendations provide you with examples of what you can ask your governments to do to ensure that street-connected children and homeless youth can enjoy their right to food:
- Promptly allocate the maximum available resources to alleviate child hunger with food and financial relief programmes. Remind your government that this not only includes public budget, but also international funding and the private sector.
- Ensure that everyone enjoys equal access to adequate food without discrimination. Remind your government to prioritise interventions that target the most vulnerable populations, including street-connected children and homeless youth in their emergency relief planning.
- Allow street-connected children, homeless youth and their families to access food relief without the need to prove their identity, address or registration in government schemes. Access to social protection services should not depend on the ability to provide identity documents or have a permanent address. Suggest your government adopts innovative, temporary solutions such as providing children with informal identity cards linked to your organisation’s address or personnel.
- Refrain from punishing children for moving onto the streets to find food or earn money to buy food. Survival behaviour must never be criminalised.
- Collaborate with NGOs to identify population groups most in need of food relief, and work together to ensure food relief packages reach those groups in adequate quantities.
- Recognise NGO outreach workers providing food relief to street-connected children and homeless youth and their families as essential workers. Encourage your government to provide these outreach workers with a certificate that will prevent interference from authorities when they are present on the streets and in communities, even during lockdowns.
Why should my government listen to these recommendations and implement them?
The right to adequate food is a fundamental right that everyone has, including street-connected children and homeless youth. It is widely recognised in international law as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.[v] [vi] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also explicitly recognises freedom from hunger as a fundamental right, and puts an obligation on states to take measures to improve production, conservation and distribution of food.[vii]
The Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly recognises the need to combat malnutrition in order to realise the right to health.[viii] The Committee on the Rights of the Child has explained that as part of the right to health, governments must ensure access to nutritionally adequate, culturally appropriate and safe food, and to combat malnutrition.[ix]
The notion of adequate food goes far beyond the idea of freedom from hunger or a minimum daily intake of calories, proteins or vitamins, which certainly everyone should enjoy. The term adequate when we talk about the right to adequate food, means that the food must be the most appropriate according to the economic, social, cultural and environmental circumstances in which that person lives. For example, fish may be good and nutritious for a child, as it is a great source of protein and omega3. However, if it is fished from highly contaminated water, it is toxic and dangerous for human health. Or the child may live in a family who cannot afford to buy fish. Finally, the child may observe a religion which commits to a vegetarian diet. All these factors must be considered to determine whether the food that is available to a child is also adequate.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has explained that the right to adequate food has two core elements:[x]
- The availability of food in a quantity and quality that is sufficient to meet the dietary needs of individuals, is free from adverse substances, and is acceptable within a given culture;
- The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.
So what does that really mean? Considering availability, this means not only that enough food must be available to a person either directly (e.g. by cultivating land) or indirectly (e.g. by buying it). It also must:[xi]
- Meet the dietary needs of individuals: this means the food must contain a mix of nutrients that is necessary for physical and mental growth and development at all stages throughout life. It must take age and gender into account, and therefore meet the specific dietary needs children have for their growth and development.
- Be free from adverse substances: this means that requirements and protective measures must be put in place by governments to ensure the safety of all available food.
- Be culturally acceptable: this means that the food that a person has access to is not contrary to a person’s religious, cultural or philosophical beliefs.
The element of accessibility then adds that the above-described food must also be both financially and physically accessible for everyone:[xii]
- Financial accessibility means not only that a person is able to purchase food that meets their dietary needs, is safe and culturally acceptable, but also that the cost of accessing such food does not threaten a person’s ability to meet his or her other basic needs, such as shelter and essential medicines.
- Physical accessibility means that everyone can access food that meets their dietary needs, is safe and culturally acceptable, regardless of any physical barriers that may exist due to for instance age, disability or natural or other disasters.
What legal obligations does my government have to uphold the right to adequate food during a pandemic?
As with other economic, social and cultural rights, it takes time and resources for governments to fully realise the right to adequate food for everyone.
There is, however, a minimum core obligation that governments must uphold immediately, under the right to adequate food. This is to ensure that everyone has, at the very least, the minimum essential food which is adequate, nutritious and safe to ensure their freedom from hunger.[xiii] Governments can never escape this obligation to mitigate or alleviate hunger, not even in times of natural or other disasters.[xiv] The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights remarked that it is always the responsibility of the government to prove that they have done everything they can to the maximum of their resources to ensure this minimum level of nutrition is met for everyone.[xv]
Moreover, even if governments are not required to immediately fully realise the right to adequate, nutritious food for everyone, they are nonetheless committed to taking continuous and uninterrupted action towards its progressive realisation.[xvi] The Committee on the Rights of the Child has explained that such obligations must be interpreted to mean that governments must employ all available resources, including international cooperation, to realise the child’s right to adequate food as promptly as possible.[xvii]
Similar to other human rights concerning the economic, cultural and social sphere, the obligations under the right to adequate food can be divided into three main categories to respect, protect and fulfil:[xviii]
- An obligation to respect it, which requires governments to refrain from activities that result in preventing anyone from accessing adequate food;
- An obligation to protect it, which obligates governments to ensure that other parties, such as companies or individuals, do not deprive anyone of their access to adequate food;
- An obligation to fulfill it, which commits governments to promote, facilitate and improve the equal access to adequate food and means to obtain food.
The right to adequate food also imposes on governments a special obligation to directly provide access to food to those individuals and groups who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot access adequate food by their own means.[xix] Specific to children, the Convention on the Rights of the Child imposes an obligation on governments to take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to fulfill the right to an adequate standard of living of the child and to provide, where necessary, material assistance and support programmes, particularly regarding nutrition. In case of children without parents or direct caregivers, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has explicitly remarked that by material assistance and support programmes in case of need, the provision also means assistance provided directly to children.[xx]
In conclusion, the realisation of the right to adequate food during this pandemic requires governments to pay special attention to street-connected children and homeless youth with targeted interventions, and remove barriers to accessing food and food relief interventions. During this time of emergency, governments are therefore urgently called upon to collaborate with NGOs and other governments to identify and address the specific needs of street-connected children and homeless youth to ensure they can enjoy their right to adequate food and freedom from hunger.
Other papers will be prepared to support CSC’s Network Members and other interested organisations and individuals. Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss topics relevant to your work on which you would like to see a similar paper. Please do not hesitate to use the above email address if you need individualised support to analyse laws or measures adopted by the Government in your country in relation to responses to COVID-19 which can or already have an impact on street-connected children’s rights.
[i]Kuhr, E., Coronavirus pandemic – A perfect storm for LGBTQ homeless youth, 5 April 2020, available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/coronavirus-pandemic-perfect-storm-lgbtq-homeless-youth-n1176206
[ii] Côte d’Ivoire-AIP, Un fonds spécial de solidarité Covid-19 adopté en conseil des ministres, 15 April 2020, available at: https://aip.ci/cote-divoire-aip-un-fonds-special-de-solidarite-covid-19-adopte-en-conseil-des-ministres/
[iii] Côte d’Ivoire-AIP, Le dispositif de riposte du ministère de la femme, de la famille et de l’enfant renforcé par l’UNICEF, 23 April 2020, available at: https://aip.ci/cote-divoire-aip-le-dispositif-de-riposte-du-ministere-de-la-femme-de-la-famille-et-de-lenfant-renforce-par-lunicef/
[iv] Scottish Government, The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: COVID-19 Statement, 5 May 2020 retrieved from: https://www.togetherscotland.org.uk/media/1514/scottishgovernment_childrens-rights_covid-19-response.pdf
[v] UN International Covenant on on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, Article 11.1, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx
[vi] Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights also recognises the right to food as included in everyone’s right to “an adequate standard of living for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”. See Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, available at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
[vii] UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, Article 11.
[viii] Article 24.2 (c) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child says that it is a core obligation of the States under the right to health to combat disease and malnutrition also through the provision of nutritious food.
[ix] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 15 (2013) on the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health (art. 24), para. 43, available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f15&Lang=en
[x] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para 8, available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2f1999%2f5&Lang=en
[xi] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999), para 9-11.
[xii] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para. 13.
[xiii] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para. 6, 14 and 15.
[xiv] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para. 15.
[xv] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para. 17.
[xvi] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para. 16.
[xvii] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 21 (2017): Children in Street Situations, Para 49, available at: https://www.streetchildren.org/resources/general-comment-no-21-2017-on-children-in-street-situations/.
[xviii] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para. 15.
[xix] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 12 (1999) on the right to adequate food (Article 11), para. 15.
[xx]UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 21 (2017): Children in Street Situations, para. 49.