Between 2019 and 2020, poverty in the country increased by 7%. Girls, boys and adolescents are the most affected because they not only lose income, but also rights.
Since December 2020, 9-year-old Damián gets up early to shine shoes in the Plaza Grande, in the Historic Center of Quito. Between the Carondelet Palace, the Cathedral, the Episcopal Conference, and the City Council, Damián spends his mornings accompanied by the little wooden box in which he keeps all of his work instruments.
When the Plaza Grande is closed—as on June 2, 2021, in which entry was prevented because the Metropolitan Council was meeting to vote for the removal orders of Mayor Jorge Yunda—Damián walks a couple blocks more towards the San Francisco Square. He says he can’t stop working because he has to help his parents. Since the pandemic began, they no longer have enough with what their father earns by charging electrical appliances, nor with the sale of their mother’s avocados.
Damien is one of the 420 thousand girls, boys and adolescents who work in the country. Many of them began to do so because of the economic impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on their families. Verónica Proaño, Communication Director of World Vision—a humanitarian organization that works with children and adolescents—says that between 2019 and 2021, child labor in the country increased by 2%.
Damien’s earnings are divided in two: half is for his parents and the other half he can keep. He says he doesn’t know how much he earns per day, but that with what he normally gets per day he can buy 5 small candies (the kind that cost between 5 and 10 cents). The social and economic health crisis caused the budget of many families to be reduced, such as Damien’s, and poverty in the country increased by 7%. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that due to the effect of the pandemic, 2.9 million children and adolescents currently live in income poverty. In other words, your household has a per capita family income of less than $84.05 per month.
Income is not the only way to measure poverty in Ecuador. Joaquín González-Alemán, UNICEF’s representative in the country, says that knowing how much money a household lives with every day “does not tell you how those people who make it live.” To refine that analysis is multidimensional poverty. As its name implies, it includes several dimensions that are analyzed to measure the deprivations that a person lives with.
“It is a way of measuring the many faces of poverty,” says economist Diana Morán, an expert on inequalities. Multidimensional poverty it takes into account access to education, work and social security, health, water and food, and to habitat, housing and a healthy environment. When calculating these other factors, the figures go up: in Ecuador 3.1 million children and adolescents live in multidimensional poverty due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The dimensions with which this type of poverty is measured are related to what is established in the Declaration of Human Rights and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. González-Alemán says that “the more deprivation of rights you have, the more extreme the dimensional poverty will be.” According to UNICEF, 6 out of 10 of those 3.1 million live in extreme poverty. That is, they are deprived in at least half of the factors taken into account to measure it.
“We are in a human rights crisis,” says Nicky Bravo, representative of the Movement for Children and Youth of Ecuador —a network of civil society organizations that works for the rights of children and adolescents— “and children are the main victims.”
Education came to a halt
Since March 2020—when the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Ecuador and most of the face-to-face activities, including classes, were suspended—Damián spent his mornings at work. Since he is busy at that time, he cannot connect to virtual classes, but in the afternoons, he dedicates himself to doing the homework that his teachers send him on his mother’s cell phone via WhatsApp.
The attention focused only on the pandemic and the lack of resources have caused children to be invisible and the deterioration of the factors measured in multidimensional poverty are more serious for them. One of the most affected dimensions in Ecuador is education. Joaquín González-Alemán says that only 2 out of every 10 students have their own technological device. The rest are in a similar situation to Damien: they must use their parent’s devices, or they must share it with someone else.
Even with the equipment, only 45.5% of households in the country have internet access and can consistently connect to classes. Antonella, 6, was given a certificate of appreciation last year because she had obtained the highest marks in the class. “Now they are not going to give it to me,” she says with her head down. Carmen, her mother, says that Antonella must skip virtual classes often because they don’t have enough money to put megabytes on her cell phone. That has also prevented her from filing homework on time and caused her grades to drop.
Difficulties in being able to attend online classes are violating children’s right to education. The economist Morán says that the socioeconomic conditions of some people “act as a centrifugal force that expels them from the educational system.” School dropouts have increased due to the pandemic crisis. UNICEF estimates that 90,000 children have not been enrolled this school year, but they say that the figure could be much higher.
The right to education is also being violated due to the quality of the education they are receiving. Some 6 out of 10 students feel they are learning less, according to UNICEF. Joaquín González-Alemán says that 15% of the children who were attending classes had not had any form of contact with their teachers in the last 15 days for different reasons.
“We cannot be sure that they have left their education, but we are concerned because after 15 days a child is not thinking about classes, they forget what they learned,” says the UNICEF representative in Ecuador. Antonella and Damián try to maintain contact with their teachers and fulfill their tasks, but technical problems and lack of resources have prevented them from doing so normally.
The return to face-to-face classes in Ecuador will be gradual and voluntary. Since June 7, 2021, more than 1,300 schools and colleges in the country can return to the classroom with pilot plans. Antonella and Damián say they miss going to class very much. However, neither of their schools are included in the list of educational institutions already authorized to have face-to-face classes.
No childhood vaccines, no food, no socialization, no safety
In addition to education, other rights that are taken into account to measure multidimensional poverty have also been affected. Verónica Proaño, from World Vision, says that 4 groups of rights have been violated: development (which includes education), survival, protection and participation.
Survival is linked to health. Proaño says that one of the ways in which the well-being of children was affected is the shortage of pentavalent vaccines, essential for children under 5 years of age. The Ministry of Health of the Lenín Moreno government said that the reason for the lack of these vaccines was the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, in March 2021, an investigation revealed that hundreds of children were not vaccinated on time because Ecuador did not meet the necessary payments to the Revolving Fund of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a solidarity cooperation mechanism through which vaccines are purchased for the entire region. Not only pentavalents were in short supply. According to World Vision, due to shortages, 31% of households with children under 5 years of age were unable to access pentavalent, polio, yellow fever, and influenza vaccines.
It is not a recent or unforeseen problem. Nicky Bravo says that in 2019 the Movement for Children and Youth of Ecuador made a report in which it already warned of the low coverage of childhood vaccination in the country. According to Bravo, the document was handed over to the National Assembly, the Ministry of Health, and representatives of the United Nations. The Movement issued a similar alert in 2017.
“All the problems that we have now, we already had them before,” says Bravo. What the pandemic did was aggravate the delicate situation that Ecuador was in before and deepen the socioeconomic gaps that separated the country’s population.
Children’s health is also linked to their diet. Chronic child malnutrition affects 27.2% of children under 2 years of age in Ecuador. Proaño says that 53% of Ecuadorian households are food insecure and do not have access to necessary food. A World Vision analysis says that this is compounded by the lack of access to drinking water and sanitation services. In addition, sedentary lifestyle due to virtual education and confinement could contribute to the increase in overweight and obese girls and boys.
The rights of protection and participation of children have not been guaranteed in these 14 months either. Although there is no official information on the impact of Covid-19 on the figures of violence against girls, boys, and adolescents, Proaño says that it is estimated that due to the confinement the number of minor victims of violence went from 7 out of every ten to 8 out of 10. In addition, she says that their spaces to participate have been disappearing with the closure of schools, the lack of internet access and poverty. This has prevented them from interacting with other children and integrating socially.
The current problems of Damián, Antonella and the thousands of other girls, boys and adolescents who are in a similar situation will translate into fewer opportunities in the future. Morán says that when they are adults, they will have difficulties accessing full employment: with the rights of the law and well paid. According to Morán, the lack of quality education increases the probability that in some years they will be part of the millions of Ecuadorians who are underemployed or in the informal labor sector, in which it is not guaranteed that they will have basic living conditions such as access to health and social security. In addition, according to Morán, the cumulative effect of the other deprivations of rights aggravated by the pandemic will have repercussions on their development. The true cost of that will be charged to Ecuador for several years.
Will take billions to solve the problem
UNICEF calculated that improving the living conditions of Antonella, Damián and the other girls, boys and adolescents in Ecuador could cost the country just over $2.5 billion. That represents only 2.4% of the Ecuadorian Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A similar percentage to what was earmarked for military spending in 2019. Nelson Mandela said that “there is no more intense revelation of the soul of a society than the way it treats its children.” The pandemic confirmed what many already knew: Ecuador is in debt to its children and adolescents.
Public policies that guarantee their rights need to be strengthened. The economist Morán says that the changes cannot be made only with administrative will. According to the expert, “there must be availability of resources to improve their living conditions.” According to González-Alemán, the investment must go beyond the increase in the coverage of the economic aid bonds to which the previous government, that of Lenín Moreno, committed itself in the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). González-Alemán says that education, health, and protection “also need an investment that is not contemplated in that agreement.”
According to UNICEF, the $2.5 billion will be enough to guarantee comprehensive care for early childhood (from birth to 8 years), for new quotas in basic and higher education, eradicate child labor and a new transfer of emergency for households in extreme poverty. The longer it takes to make that investment and the country’s living conditions are not improved, the higher the social and economic costs will be for the most vulnerable population.