Children demand a bigger say in disaster prevention

Source(s): Thomson Reuters Foundation, trust.org
Photo by  © UNISDR http://www.flickr.com/photos/isdr/8852142722/
Photo by © UNISDR http://www.flickr.com/photos/isdr/8852142722/

By Megan Rowling:

Geneva – Since a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Hiroto's home city of Ishinomaki in northeastern Japan in March 2011, the 17-year-old has been busy. He has worked with charity Save the Children to set up a "community building" club for kids, whose members have designed plans for a new leisure centre.

They have also consulted with town planning officials to make sure children's concerns are reflected in efforts to rebuild the areas affected by the huge disaster, including a new park. "We want to spread children's ideas throughout society, have our own spaces, and revitalise the community," said the high-school student, who also edits a children's newspaper.

Speaking to a packed room at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva last week, he emphasised the importance of children's participation in preparing for, and bouncing back from, disasters.

"We should be actively involved in the recovery plans, as the future of our communities rests in our hands," he said. "The passion we have to help in this process is the same as that of adults. Please listen to our voices."

Despite the enthusiasm of children in Japan's Tohoku region for helping get the lives of hard-hit people back on track, a proposal issued by 32 students after a recent workshop in Japan says they have found it hard to volunteer, partly because adults are worried about their safety and their ability to perform certain tasks. Children's opinions are sometimes treated as little more than "issues to be considered" and often do not lead to action, it adds.

Ayumi lives in Iwaki city, less than 50 km from Fukushima, where a nuclear power plant was badly damaged by the tsunami, leaking radiation into the surrounding area. Many people are unable to return home due to the contamination. The 16-year-old told the Geneva conference that, even where schools have been cleaned up, some children don't feel safe studying there, especially if debris has been buried in the school yard.

Many would like to be able to go away on holiday to relieve their stress and boost their immune systems, the workshop report says, but this is not possible for families with two working parents, and there are limited recreation programmes on offer for older pupils.

"Please make sure that we children who live in Fukushima are provided with an environment to study in schools that are safe. I would like people here and around the world to lend us a hand in order for the health of children in Fukushima to be protected," Ayumi appealed.

The need for disaster-resilient schools was also highlighted by Sopheone, an 18-year-old girl from Cambodia who leads the children's council at her school in the Srei Snom district of Siem Reap province. The 28 Makara High School has been elevated so as to avoid flooding, and is now using solar lighting.

"We would like to see all children know about disaster risk reduction – how to respond before, during and after disasters," she said, calling for all schools to give lessons on the subject.

BETTER PROTECTION NEEDED

The risks to children from disasters include death, injury, illness, separation from families, disrupted education and an increase in child labour and trafficking.

Classes are often suspended in the event of a disaster – either because school facilities are damaged, or the building is used as a shelter for people who have had to leave their homes.

This is a major worry for children themselves. Research carried out in 2012 among nearly 1,300 children in 17 high-risk countries by Plan International, Save the Children, UNICEF and World Vision showed that safe schools and the ability to carry on studying are top priorities.

The recent report explores how to implement the Children's Charter for Disaster Risk Reduction, launched two years ago with the backing of aid groups. It is based on five key elements identified by children and young people: to have a safe school, to be protected from abuse of all kinds, to participate and be able to access the information they need, to have resilient infrastructure, and ensure disaster risk reduction efforts reach the most vulnerable.

Sabine Rakotomalala, deputy coordinator of the Child Protection Working Group, which brings together 30 non-governmental organisations, told the Global Platform: "I think we do OK in the response and after the disaster, but today we are not very good yet on the preparedness part."

But she mentioned the 2010 Haiti earthquake as "an example of a situation where things went quite wrong". The controversy around unauthorised adoption of children who had lost their parents exposed the need for stronger rules and procedures to protect children in disasters.

These can be simple measures such as making sure children know their last names and where they should go in an emergency. Training social workers and improving adoption regulations are also important, Rakotomalala said.

The report notes there is much work being undertaken around the charter recommendations by both governments and aid groups, but "a greater effort is needed to systematically include children” in disaster risk reduction.

INVOLVING CHILDREN

Tom Mitchell, a climate change expert with the London-based Overseas Development Institute who has played a major role in developing the children's charter, told Thomson Reuters Foundation there has been "a spectacular take-off" in disaster reduction programmes centred on children in the past three to four years, with most progress seen in Southeast Asia and Central America. But governments need to buy into the idea, and the level of support has been lower in parts of Africa, he added.

Mitchell called for children to be fully included in the consultations leading towards a second global plan of action on disaster risk reduction, due to be agreed in 2015 – as did children's charities present at the Global Platform. Whether and how this might happen remains unclear, Mitchell added.

Motselisi, a 15-year-old girl from the mountain village of Qholaqhoe in Butha Buthe, Lesotho, urged politicians to enter into more discussions with children on disasters, "so that their concerns can be raised up as a priority for adults".

She herself has taken part in workshops on disaster risk reduction and helped local children develop a plan for new homes that are better protected from flooding.

"We have found that children are treated as silent community members – they don't have the self-confidence to talk, they don't have the strength to go public with their needs, and they don't have the chance to ask what has been said on their behalf," she said.

*The surnames of children are not disclosed for child protection reasons.

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