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[afro-nets] Helping children affected by disasters

Helping children affected by disasters


Two years ago, I put together a report on "Children in Disas-
ters". I attach 7 relevant excerpts from it below in the hope
that you might know recipients in areas affected by the Indian
Ocean tsunami and earthquake for whom the excerpts might be use-
ful, and who can use them to help affected children. I have a
WORD version and a PDF version of the excerpts which have a
clearer format, and which I can send to you if you e-mail me.

Please note: The report was commissioned by the UK office of
Plan International. The full report can be downloaded at:

Thank you,
Amer Jabry


by Amer Jabry

All reports indicate that children were the most affected by the
- either because they did not have the strength to cope with the
water, or because they lost relatives and homes.

Nevertheless, the holistic welfare of children is usually over-
looked in times of disaster, and I fear this disaster will be no
exception. Also, children are at greater risk of abuse (physi-
cal, verbal, economic, sexual) at these times.

The following seven excerpts from a report on Children in Disas-
ters ( pro-
vide basic guidance on dealing with children in disasters.

1) Common responses of children to disasters
2) Disaster RELIEF for children - suggested good practices
3) Disaster RECOVERY for children - suggested good practices
4) Disaster PREPAREDNESS for children - suggested good practices
5) How can children help in reconstruction processes?
6) Coping in the aftermath of calamity: ensuring the voices of
    children are heard
7) Disasters, emergency responses and children


- Regression in behaviour
- Decreased appetite
- Nightmares
- Muteness
- Clinging
- Irritability
- Exaggerated startle response.

- Marked reactions of fear and anxiety
- Increased hostility with siblings
- Somatic complaints (e.g. stomach aches)
- Sleep disorders
- School problems
- Decreased interest in peers, hobbies
- Social withdrawal
- Apathy
- Re-enactment via play
- Post traumatic stress disorder

- Decreased interest in social activities peers, hobbies, school
- Inability to feel pleasure
- Decline in responsible behaviours
- Rebellion, behaviour problems
- Somatic complaints
- Eating disorders
- Change in physical activities (both increase and decrease)
- Confusion
- Lack of concentration
- Risk taking behaviours
- Post traumatic stress disorder

Source: Helping the Children - A Practical Handbook for Complex
Humanitarian Emergencies. Edited by Anna Mandalakas, 1999


A) Programs for children should always have top priority in
natural disasters and complex humanitarian emergency situations.
Beyond the basic physical requirements of food, safe water,
clothing, shelter, sanitation and health care, these programs

Ai) Protect children from danger, violence, abuse and sexual ex-
ploitation - not only in the immediate aftermath, but in a way
that can be extended for the duration of disaster recovery op-
erations. One particularly successful strategy by UNICEF is the
establishment of "Child Friendly Spaces" in disaster relief ar-
eas where children have access to safe drinking water and sani-
tation facilities and a safe, learning-friendly environment.
These "Spaces" can be developed through appropriate community
management approaches to ensure their sustainability.

Aii) Monitor children, adolescents and mothers of young children
for symptoms of psychological trauma and intervene when they oc-
cur. Such monitoring can be done via teachers, indigenous heal-
ers, community health workers, food servers and others. It is
important to inform these people about the special mental health
risks to children and how to help them. One approach is to talk
with parents and caretakers about their children. Do they note
significant changes in a child's behaviour? Are children con-
fused and upset? If the children are toddlers, do they cry con-
stantly or are they mute? Are they unresponsive to physical con-
tact? Do they show developmental regression? Another approach is
to observe children at play. Does the play seem normal? Are
children acting out recent events after the disaster? (Man-
dalakas 1999)

B) Organisations responding to a disaster relief situation need
to be able to track the history and situation of individual
children. Simple but effective record keeping of the children's
on-going status helps emergency staff ensure the development of
children in and after emergencies (MacLeod 2000).

C) Reliable caretakers must be found for unaccompanied children,
and especially for those under two years of age who do not sur-
vive without constant care. Ideally, they should be female, of
the same ethnic group and speak the same language. Adolescent
girls and elderly women make good caretakers. Discreet supervi-
sion should be maintained to ensure caretakers are not verbally,
physically or sexually abusing the children.


* Children and adolescents can, and should, help in a variety of
recovery tasks in the aftermath of a disaster. (See point 5 be-
low as well). Too often they are perceived as being in the way,
as just hanging around or as non-contributors in disasters. They
can in fact, help with caring for young unaccompanied minors,
gathering wood, distributing water, working in gardens, making
food, assisting in health clinics and making clothing. Adoles-
cents can prepare entertainment programs for young children. De-
pending on the culture, these may include pantomime, puppets,
storytelling or musical programs (Mandalakas 1999). Children of-
ten develop very resourceful survival skills during times of
disaster from which adults can learn. Also, the contribution of
children in non-affected areas should not be forgotten. Simply
by befriending affected children, they could provide invaluable

* Children's education in the aftermath of a disaster needs to
be established as an urgent priority. This sends a clear signal
to children affected by disasters that they are important and
cared for, and provides a healthy routine that allows them to
recover a semblance of structure and normalcy in their lives.
Depending on available resources, the learning can be tailored
to help with trauma healing and, where necessary, peace educa-
tion efforts.

* Routines for children should be established as soon as possi-
ble to help them recover from a disaster. Regular, meals, story
telling, sports, music, bathing, washing clothing, holidays and
festivals are all reassuring to children and should also be a
high priority in any planning for them.

* Identify adults with child relevant skills and ask them to
help organise programs for children. Very often in a disaster
affected population there will be teachers, coaches, artists,
musicians etc. Asking them to help with programs for children
and to act as good role models for the children will be thera-
peutic and beneficial to all.

* Adults should promote resilience in children affected by dis-
aster by connecting each child to a trusting loving older per-
son, by praising their accomplishments, by showing love and em-
pathy and by encouraging children's hopes and confidence. (The
International Resilience Project, quoted in Mandalakas 1999)

* Use the disaster recovery situation to influence and change
the perceptions of adults about the needs and views of children,
and particularly children with special needs. The needs and
views of children in many disaster prone areas are traditionally
neglected. A disaster recovery situation presents an opportunity
to change adult perceptions of children and their behaviour to-
wards them. Government organisations and international and na-
tional NGOs can work with affected communities to determine what
is needed to ensure that a community's children grow up to be
healthy productive adults who can work on preparing for and pos-
sibly preventing similar disasters from occurring. In particu-
lar, communities have a special responsibility towards any of
their children who are particularly vulnerable: those with dis-
abilities, perhaps as a result of the disaster, those orphaned
or unaccompanied, etc. Efforts need to be made to ensure that
such children are taken care of within the community and that
child residential care institutions (such as orphanages) are
only used as a last resort.


* Children in disaster prone areas should be made aware of what
might happen, how to react appropriately, how to seek help and
what they can do to safeguard themselves, their families, their
property and their environment.

* Communities in disaster prone areas should develop disaster
preparedness plans which include children's input. These plans
should clearly identify local risks and hazards, be produced in
media that all community members can understand and access (e.g.
posters, murals, simple drawings for primary school children)
and ensure that everyone is familiar with them.

. International, national and local government and non-
government organisations who carry out disaster related work
should ensure that they have sufficient staff trained in child
health, child development, child protection and child consulta-
tion and participation skills. Joint training with other NGOs,
especially indigenous partners, government officials and key
community members such as teachers and religious leaders makes
good use of limited resources and helps build partnership rela-
tionships essential for good disaster management. In addition,
child development experts who visit projects could run short
training sessions for local staff (MacLeod 2000).


* By being dedicated, working hard, removing loose stones and
walls, helping to clean up refuse and rubble, planting trees and

* Expressing what we feel, helping to build our houses, asking
others to collaborate in rebuilding our communities, encouraging
those who feel sad

* Helping each other, encouraging our parents, not being wor-
ried, not being afraid, helping other kids who feel scared

* Bringing water and food or whatever to those who are rebuild-

* Organizing clean-up campaigns, dynamics to make us happier,
starting recreational groups

* Welcoming the institutions that are helping us reconstruct and
not wasting what they give to us

* Holding educational meetings, learning to draw, colour, read,
write and express our opinions

* Helping other communities

* Caring for our little brothers and sisters while our parents
are working

* Organizing ourselves to rebuild our school

SOURCE: Children from 10 shelters and communities in El Salvador
soon after the 2001 earthquakes


Experience has shown that the most important factor in success-
ful recovery from a disaster, whether natural or manmade, is to
seek out and rely on the capacities and resources of local com-
munities, even in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The ba-
sic rule for an NGO beginning an emergency response is: assume
there are some important local capacities and set into motion a
process of finding out what these are (Andersen 1998).

Children tend to make up a large proportion of a population af-
fected by a disaster. In some developing countries, this propor-
tion is greater than 50%. Thus overlooking children potentially
ignores a large part of local capacity at a time of disaster
when it is most needed.

Overlooking children also prevents relief efforts from properly
identifying the specific vulnerabilities and the need for pro-
tection of a substantial portion of the affected population.

Children are not a homogeneous group, and their vulnerabilities
will be a function of many factors like: their age; whether they
are girls or boys; whether they live in urban or rural settings;
their ethnicity or tribe; whether they are earning or non-
earning; etc. It will also depend on the traditional role of
children in the society, and whether that role and position has
become worse (e.g. more suppressed) or better as a result of the

In addition, some children are more vulnerable than others in a
disaster or conflict. In particular, those showing signs of
trauma; those at risk of abandonment or separation; those living
alone or in a child headed household; those with disabilities,
particularly if they were in centres or with more vulnerable
families; those who were placed in foster families, street chil-
dren and children in conflict with the law (MacLeod 2000).

Such oversight reduces the efficacy of relief efforts. Therefore
by ensuring that children's voices are heard in the aftermath of
a disaster better account can be taken of their specific capaci-
ties and vulnerabilities.


Children in disasters are often the most affected segment of the
population but also the most overlooked.

Exposure to a disaster is a traumatic experience for any person,
but particularly so for a child. Childhood is a unique develop-
ment period when an individual's main physical, mental, emo-
tional and social development and growth take place. Damage at
this stage often cannot be overcome later. Children exposed to a
disaster experience harmful psychological and emotional impacts
that often scar children for life. Therefore interventions to
ensure the survival of children after a disaster are very neces-
sary, but not sufficient to ensure that the disaster does not
hinder their overall development.

But while the physical survival needs of children (safe water,
food, shelter, clothing, primary health care) and especially
young children are usually given a very high priority during a
disaster, there are few actual examples of disaster interven-
tions that go beyond this to consider children holistically - as
worthwhile actors, with special needs but also with special ca-
pacities to be independent strong survivors capable of producing
useful knowledge and actively contributing to disaster relief
and recovery efforts.

Why is this so? Emergency responses to health crises and provi-
sion of relief food or household items have a long history. Many
people are experienced in these disciplines - but when it comes
to specialised assistance for children affected by war [or natu-
ral disasters] the pool of expertise is extremely small. Most
staff learn on the spot. There is no diploma or degree that pre-
pares people for addressing the holistic needs of children in
conflict [ or disaster] zones (MacLeod 2000).


Andersen, M & Woodrow, P (1998). Rising from the Ashes - Devel-
opment Strategies in Times of Disaster. London: IT Publications.

Mandalakas, A (1999): Helping the children in complex humanitar-
ian emergencies.
Johnson & Johnson Paediatric Institute.

McLeod H (2000). Holistic Care of Children in Complex Humanitar-
ian Emergencies in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies ed. Janz M &
Slead J., Monrovia CA: World Vision International

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