Editorial: Creating spaces for children

CHILD-FRIENDLY spaces are needed to restore a sense of normality and security to children, who count among the most vulnerable in post-disaster situations.

Some 124,000 children or about half of at least 300,000 people were displaced or evacuated after the Jan. 12 eruption of the Taal Volcano. According to Jerome Balinton, humanitarian manager of the Save the Children Philippines, this estimate is “expected... to rise”.

In May 2019, the non-government organization drew attention to 1.8 million children that continue to face “threats of lingering armed conflict” in Maguindanao, Surigao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, and Lanao del Sur.

While evacuation puts children and families away from being directly endangered by disasters and armed conflicts, threats persist in evacuation centers: hunger and malnutrition where aid is inadequate or coordination of assistance is lacking; spread of diseases; physical and sexual abuse in conditions where privacy is sacrificed and parents or guardians leave children to find work or provisions; child recruitment for war, economic and sexual exploitation; and disruption of their education and psychosocial development.

In their work with child survivors of disasters and armed conflict, the Save the Children organization has set up Temporary Learning Spaces and mobile Child Friendly Spaces in evacuation centers.

Local governments and volunteers need civil society support to create and replicate these spaces where children can safely play and continue to learn through activities, such as storytelling, read-along, drawing, coloring, and free play.

Secure about their children being with responsible volunteers and caregivers, their parents and guardians can focus on equally urgent priorities, such as sourcing provisions and coordinating with authorities.

In the crisis that continues to displace at least 300,000 people as Alert Level 4 is still raised to warn the public of the imminence of another eruption of the Taal Volcano, the impact of disrupted education must be averted by focusing on the psycho-social needs of children.

Children advocates have urged for donations in the form of books, notebooks, paper, and other writing and drawing supplies. These materials are often left out by donors focused on providing food, water, clothing, and medicine.

However, for reassuring children and restoring their confidence in their own resources and talents to make sense of and cope with disaster, armed conflict, displacement, and homelessness, learning and art are tested and proven as therapy for both children and adults.

Art as therapy was first used by pioneer Friedl Dicker-Brandeis with some of the 12,000 children that went to Theresienstadt, a holding camp for Jews in Czechoslovakia during World War II.

According to a Jan. 25 article in “The Economist,” the children’s outputs of their therapy sessions became “tools of justice” when the illustrations made by a survivor were included as forensic evidence in the 1960s trials of Adolf Eichmann in Israel and of Auschwitz staff in Frankfurt.

The Czechoslovakian camp was intended by the Nazis to fool the Red Cross about the humane conditions of the prisoners. However, the images drawn by the children showed the unvarnished realities, which included the starvation of the Jews.

In 2019, the Save the Children encouraged children in Rohingya refugee camps to “draw what they wanted to tell the world, as part of their therapy,” reported the same article in “The Economist.”

Perhaps the drawings made by children will also serve not just as lessons in self-expression and therapy for coping with their fears and uncertainties about disaster and evacuation but more importantly, become cues and guides for parents, volunteers, authorities, and other adults to learn more and respond with empathy to the real needs, anxieties, and other sentiments of the young, an essential and neglected gap in disaster recovery and rehabilitation.