In the past, disaster management professionals and guidelines were likely to start from the position that interventions to help children were best made through the ‘primary caregivers’ – i.e. parents or guardians. There is some logic to this. First, children can be very or even totally dependent on their parents, according to their age, strength, skills or maturity. Second, their daily routines are closely linked to those of adults in the household, and particularly to their mothers’ work: even quite young children help their mothers with domestic and productive tasks. Third, the capacity of groups and individuals to deal with risk is greatly boosted by previous experience of disasters, from which coping strategies are learnt or knowledge of them is reinforced.
This viewpoint also has significant drawbacks. It overlooks any distinctiveness that there may be in the child’s position. It is based on the assumption that parents will always be there to inform, warn and protect their children, whereas in fact children spend a lot of time elsewhere: at school, playing with friends and in many cases working. Children are capable of independent action, providing useful knowledge and contributing to DRR efforts. Many are already taking on adult responsibilities, such as household duties, paid work and caring for other family members. This has led to agencies working increasingly with children and young people to reduce risk, and to more ‘child-centred’ DRR initiatives.
Definitions of ‘children’ or ‘young people’ vary. For some organisations, children are any age up to 15 years (with a concentration on the 7–15 age group where children’s perception and participation are concerned); young people are 15 years and over (sometimes up to 25). A more common distinction is between infants and young children (0–5), children (6–11) and adolescents/young people (12 and over). Legal thresholds for reaching adulthood also vary between countries.
Many factors affect children’s vulnerability to hazards. Nutritional deficiencies have a significant impact on the health and growth of infants and young children. Younger children are particularly likely to suffer from protein deficiency and malnutrition at times of famine. Children are more susceptible to pollutants produced by industry and society because they absorb more in relation to their body weight. Their lack of physical strength and practical skills, such as being able to swim, can prevent them from getting to places of safety. Where they spend a good deal of time in and around the home, they can be at greater risk from sudden-onset hazards such as earthquakes or landslides. In some cases, lack of literacy and other education limits their understanding of a potentially dangerous situation and how to prepare for or react to it.
Emergency responses often give priority to children’s physical needs, such as water, food, clothing, shelter and healthcare, but they can overlook others, such as the need for psychological support to deal with trauma, protection from abuse and harm and recreation and education. Children and young people may be in particular need of psychological or emotional support for dealing with a crisis, especially if they are on their own and cannot rely on older family members. However, they can and do adapt and recover, especially if they receive appropriate help (from parents, family members, counsellors and other professionals) and live in a generally supportive environment. Interventions involving story writing, drawing and plays can help children to draw out their feelings and relieve their emotional pain.+E. C. Oncu and A. M. Wise, ‘The Effects of the 1999 Turkish Earthquake on Young Children: Analyzing Traumatized Children’s Completion of Short Stories’, Child Development, 81 (4), 2010.
Disasters leave many children without parents or carers, putting them at high risk of abuse and exploitation. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami orphaned more than 20,000 children; the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, left over 5,000 children without an adult caregiver.+A. Ager et al., ‘Defining Best Practices and Protection of Children in Crisis-affected Settings: A Delphi Study’, Child Development, 81 (4), 2010. Very little is known about the disaster vulnerability of street children, of whom there are an estimated 100–150m worldwide, but children orphaned by disasters may well end up on the streets. Here they face numerous everyday threats including malnutrition, road traffic accidents, violence, sexual abuse and police brutality, as well as having no place of refuge during floods or bad weather.
It is important to listen to young people and children. They are close to their environment and observe it acutely, and often have a clear perspective and understanding of the environmental, social and economic risks they face and the relationship between vulnerability and hazard. They can also play an important role as communicators and educators about risk (see Chapter 10). Some community-based projects give them opportunities to present their own views of their needs and the risks they face, for example by drawing risk maps or other images of hazards and vulnerability. This approach can provide new insights to outsiders, as well as helping to raise the children’s own awareness and interest.
There are a growing number of examples of child-centred approaches to DRR work. Plan Vietnam has drawn on children’s knowledge of the local environment in designing a village flood preparedness initiative, and in El Salvador Plan’s long-running programme of support to children’s disaster groups has seen a progressive development in their interests and activities. For example, a group in one village identified uncontrolled extraction of stone and sand from a river bed as increasing the risk of flooding, and ran a successful campaign to ban the practice.+A. Jabry (ed.), After the Cameras Have Gone: Children in Disasters (London: Plan UK 2005), https://www.plan.org.au/~/media/Documents/Research%20and%20Reports/After_the_cameras_have_gone_children_in_disasters.ashx, pp. 37–43; T. Mitchell et al., ‘The Roles of Children and Youth in Communicating Disaster Risk’, Children, Youth and Environments, 18 (1), 2008. In projects of this kind, it is important to connect child-centred initiatives with other grassroots organisations, integrating children and young people into DRR and community development planning and decision-making processes and supporting collaboration between youth groups and other community-based organisations (see Case Study 5.4: Mobilising young volunteers for DRR).
In 2012 YCare International helped the Sierra Leone YMCA to implement a pilot DRR project in Kroo Bay and Dworzack, two slum communities in the capital, Freetown, which are prone to hazards such as fires, landslides and flooding. The YMCA had been active in both communities for some years through a youth livelihood and slum upgrading project. Previously, there had been disaster volunteer groups in the two communities, but these were no longer active and young people had not been much involved, even though a large proportion of the population was under 30. The project therefore recruited more young people to join their community-based disaster management committees.
The young volunteers, who received training in DRR and contingency planning from the project, were mainly involved in clearing blocked drainage channels on the hillsides (which were causing flooding), and raising awareness about risk reduction measures at community meetings and workshops, as well as going from door to door. The results were encouraging: community members began to approach the young people for advice and assistance, and the committees were invited to support DRR and response initiatives by other NGOs.
The project provided useful lessons about young people’s volunteering, mostly about widening and maintaining participation. There was clearly a need to recruit volunteers from a wider range of young people: many of the volunteers were already members of other community groups and committees before joining the disaster management committees. There was also a need to manage expectations: some volunteers joined for the travel stipends offered them to attend meetings, and left when these were withdrawn. Many young women had to miss meetings because of family and household duties (although these did not affect their participation in other community DRR actions), which meant that support for childcare would be needed.
YCare International, Sierra Leone Youth Led Community-based Disaster Risk Reduction (London: YCare International, 2013), http://www.ycareinternational.org; A. Cummings, Youth Volunteerism and Disaster Risk Reduction (London: YCare International, 2012), http://www.ycareinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Youth-Volunteerism-and-Disaster-Risk-Reduction-in-Urban-Slums-of-Freetown.pdf.
Interventions to support children must also respond to their needs in the context of their family, community and culture. Agencies whose mandate is to work for children sometimes find it difficult to strike the right balance in their interventions between concentrating on small groups of vulnerable children and more diffuse targeting of communities in which those children live. Setting the balance in favour of the first has an impact on a needy group but reaches fewer people, while a shift towards the second reaches more people but risks spreading benefits too thinly. Tricky decisions of this kind have to be made in the light of local knowledge and experience.
Engagement between children and young people and adult institutions can be a challenge. Members of a DRR youth group in Kathmandu, Nepal, interviewed in 2013 expressed their frustration at being excluded from DRR discussions and initiatives. Research in the Philippines revealed that young people used a variety of methods to communicate their views about risk and DRR to the community and people in authority (including street theatre, art exhibitions, writing newspaper articles and holding class discussions), but found it difficult to engage formally with disaster management professionals and bureaucracies unless they had the support of a sympathetic adult in a position of power.+D. Brown and D. Dodman, Understanding Children’s Risk and Agency in Urban Areas and Their Implications for Child-centred Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia: Insights from Dhaka, Kathmandu, Manila and Jakarta (London: IIED, 2014), http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/10652IIED.pdf, p. 42; T. Mitchell et al., Children as Agents of Change for Disaster Risk Reduction: Lessons from El Salvador and the Philippines, Children in a Changing Climate, 2009, http://www.plan-uk.org/resources/documents/37225/, pp. 28–30. Ultimately, successful participation requires a shift in attitudes within a community and society as a whole. It is nevertheless possible to influence public opinion and official decisions (see Case Study 5.5: Young people’s activism for DRR).
Following a landslide in 2006 that killed over 1,000 people, official landslide risk assessments were carried out in several locations in Southern Leyte Province in the Philippines. The community of Santa Paz was shown to be at high risk, while Santa Paz High School, with nearly 400 pupils, was found to be in the path of a potential landslide. The provincial Department of Education recommended relocation, but this was opposed by a number of people locally. Some of these opponents earned a living by selling snacks to the schoolchildren at lunchtime, but many parents were also against the move because they were worried about their children having to travel to school in a different neighbourhood. Local politicians in the two districts concerned also joined in the dispute. With the support of their head teacher, students at the school began a letter writing campaign to persuade local authorities of the need to relocate the school. They also started a campaign to educate their communities about the physical processes of landslides and landslide risk. As a result, the school was moved to a safer location. The new school, which opened in 2007, was earthquake-resistant, built above flood levels and designed for use as an evacuation centre in emergencies.
T. Mitchell et al., Children as Agents of Change for Disaster Risk Reduction: Lessons from El Salvador and the Philippines, Children in a Changing Climate, 2009, http://www.plan-uk.org/resources/documents/37225/, pp. 29–31; A. Fawcett, Climate Extremes: How Young People Can Respond to Disasters in a Changing World (London: Plan UK, undated), http://www.plan-uk.org/resources/documents/100222, p. 20.
Institutions such as schools, child-care centres and nurseries can provide a focus for child-focused mitigation activity. This can take physical or structural forms (such as strengthening school buildings) and non-structural forms (such as raising awareness of hazards and risks and promoting good practice in risk reduction through the curriculum; see also Chapter 10).
The Children’s Charter for Disaster Risk Reduction was launched in May 2011 at the United Nations’ Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction by four international agencies, Plan International, Save the Children, UNICEF and World Vision. It sets out five priorities for DRR identified by 600 children in 21 hazard-prone countries. These are:
The Charter was formally launched in ten countries in October 2011, to coincide with the UNISDR’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, and a number of regional and national policy commitments to child-centred DRR have subsequently been made.
E. Bild and M. Ibrahim, Towards the Resilient Future Children Want: A Review of Progress in Achieving the Children’s Charter for Disaster Risk Reduction, World Vision UK, 2013, http://www.unisdr.org/files/33253_33253towardstheresilientfuture2013l.pdf.