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UNICEF a saving grace in Bhutanโ€™s fight against the pandemic

By Phurpa Wangmo

In 2020, UNICEF together with its partners and donors continued to accelerate its efforts to sustain the progress made thus far and support the Governmentโ€™s preparedness and response to COVID-19 to ensure that no child gets left behind in the countryโ€™s response efforts.

By November last year, 9,258 babies were delivered at health facilities and 10,396 pregnant women received antenatal care first visits because of UNICEFโ€™s interventions.

Despite the pandemic causing multiple logistical disruptions, UNICEF and partners managed to procure and deliver on time a six-month stock of all routine vaccines. As a result, 86 percent of children below one year were vaccinated with DTP3 vaccine.

Further, UNICEF helped the Ministry of Health reach 97 per cent of children aged 6-23 months in all 20 districts with multiple micronutrient powder (MNP) supplementation and counselling on Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF).

In addition, with UNICEFโ€™s support to the COVID-19 response, over 70 per cent of the populations (500,000 people) were reached with lifesaving messages on COVID-19 prevention.

UNICEF also assisted the government to develop an Education in Emergencies COVID-19 Response Plan, which incorporated safe school reopening protocols, curriculum adjustment and delivery, and psycho-social support.

To support learning continuity for children during school closure, UNICEF provided technical assistance to provide online and remote learning programmes and supported the printing of SelfInstructional Materials for more than 30,000 children who were unable to access lessons on television and online platforms.

UNICEF also ensured 9,188 (4,602 F) preschool children were reached through home-based early learning and parenting programmes, and distributed parenting booklets, soaps, and home-based early learning kits in all 20 districts.

The first ever Evaluation of Bhutanโ€™s ECCD Programme was completed, providing recommendations to improve access to and quality of early learning, and to increase investment as well as sustainable utilization of resources for ECCD.

To measure learning outcomes of children and gauge the quality of general education, the first Inclusive National Education Assessment Framework (NEAF) focused on 21st Century skills in Bhutan was launched with UNICEFโ€™s technical support.

The Framework includes assessment of learning outcomes for children with disabilities. Four more schools were assisted by UNICEF to provide the Special Education Needs (SEN) programme, achieving the target of 24 SEN schools for the current country cycle.

UNICEF also assisted Disabled Persons Association of Bhutan to be certified as Bhutanโ€™s first Disabled Peopleโ€™s Organization.

To ensure continuity of child protection services and strengthen response capacities of service providers and front liners, UNICEF helped the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) to develop a National Child Protection and Gender-Based Violence COVID-19 Response Plan in partnership with UN agencies.

The Fund also assisted the rollout of Standard Operating Procedures for Prevention and Response to Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and trained 600 (242 F) members of district women and children committees and front liners across the country on early identification and safe referrals of child protection cases and GBV.

With UNICEFโ€™s assistance, 27,404 children (13,760 F) and 948 parents and caregivers (402 F) received remote counseling and psychosocial support while the capacity of 1,750 children (713 F) was enhanced to stay safe while accessing online education.

UNICEFโ€™s partnership campaign with the Youth Development Fund, MoE, MoH, and UNDP to address mental health resulted in doubling the number of cases received through national helplines.

Challenges and the way forward

UNICEF reported that one in five children are stunted and two in five, anaemic. One third of adolescent girls are anaemic, a risk factor for intergenerational nutrition deprivation.

Further, it was reported that infant deaths contribute to almost 44 per cent of under five deaths and only 72 per cent of the population have access to basic sanitation services.

About 21 per cent of children aged 2-9 years have at least one form of disability but early detection and the needs of children with disabilities are not sufficiently addressed.

In addition, about 8,174 children between 6-19-yearolds are estimated to have never attended school. Only 25 per cent had access to ECCD in 2019. Children with disabilities, in hard-to-reach communities, and migrant and nomadic children are yet to gain access.

Learning was disrupted for almost 180,000 children of whom 74,726 also missed out on regular school meals. When classes 9-12 resumed in July, 7902 students did not return to school.

Children in Bhutan are still affected by a range of violent acts, affecting both girls and boys. More than six out of 10 children experienced some form of physical violence at least once.

During the pandemic, 684 children (258 F) and 327 adults (120 F) availed remote counselling and psychosocial support. For many families, monastic schools are a source of support for their most basic needs.

A baseline study found that there are 13,373 religious persons in 248 institutions today. The main protection issue for child monks and nuns are associated with living conditions and nutrition, which impact their overall development and well-being.

UNICEF pointed out that challenges to effective implementation of protection and justice legislation remain. Inconsistencies in legislative provisions require immediate attention.

โ€œCoordination at national and sub-national levels needs strengthening and more needs to be done to create awareness on child protection issues,โ€ it states.

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