Children are very vulnerable during any disaster situation. Given that a significant proportion of the current flood disaster’s victims are children, it is vital to pay foremost attention to safeguarding them. Displacement, the threat of exploitation, severe malnourishment and health risks are problems affecting children in the immediate future. In the longer term, rebuilding destroyed schools is vital to their rehabilitation. Let us consider each of these issues in a bit more detail. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) estimates that over 300 children have died during the floods, and the fate of another 400 is still unknown. Many who have made it to camps are separated from their families.
The authority has convened an emergency meeting concerning separated, unaccompanied and missing children and has established a special cell for women and children — though this should have been done weeks ago. Attention should be paid to demands by child rights organisations for the police and relevant government agencies promptly dealing with missing children cases. The media can also play a role in this by providing coverage to cases of lost children.
Ensuring safety and security of displaced children is crucial. Child predators are always on the lookout to take advantage of such chaotic situations. While the risk of flood-affected children being kidnapped by militants has received some attention, the dangers of lost and displaced children falling prey to trafficking, sexual abuse and kidnapping are real and must not be ignored.
Moreover, the danger of water-borne diseases like diarrhoea and dehydration has not yet been averted. Aid workers are particularly worried about malnutrition, especially among children belonging to areas where acute malnutrition was high even before the disaster struck. Nearly 70,000 children have been identified as needing urgent care due to a combination of disease and malnutrition.
Besides ensuring that the safety, nutritional and health needs of the flood-affected children are met, rebuilding educational infrastructure in their local communities is also important. While temporary learning and recreational kits are being provided by relief agencies, and temporary learning spaces have been created in many camps, eventually children will need to be put into schools. The earlier this is done the better, since inducting children into a normal and productive routine can help overcome disaster-shock. While an assessment of school damages is ongoing, initial estimates suggest nearly 8,000 schools have been damaged and another 5,000 are being used as relief shelters for displaced families.
If adequate attention is not paid to making schools in flood-hit areas functional at the very earliest, school drop-out rates will increase and spike the already dismal illiteracy rates in the country. The possibility of many previously school-going children being sent into madrassas can also not be discounted.
Given that the lives of so many children have been directly impacted by the floods, their needs must not be sidelined.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2010.
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