By Raabya Amjad
SINDH PROVINCE, Pakistan, 15 October 2010 – Rehana, 12, is a special needs child whose eyes have simply seen far too much misery for one so young. Having fled with her family from the floodwaters that submerged her home in Sindh province, Pakistan, she now lives in a poor area of the province where girls are isolated within their communities, have limited access to schools and cannot earn much.
As a result of this isolation, young women are regarded as an economic burden and are often made to suffer deliberate neglect or even outright physical harm.
Rehana, along with her seven siblings, parents and extended family, currently resides in one of the 350 vacant Thermal Power Services quarters that have been offered to some 700 displaced families by the district government.
Thousands of special needs children in Pakistan already face the threats of violence, abuse and exploitation, and the displacement caused by flooding greatly exacerbates these risks. Should another disaster occur, the situation could worsen even further.
“When the flood waters came we were sleeping,” recalled Rehana. “We woke up to people screaming. We did not have time to pick up anything. We had time only to run with the water in full pressure behind us.”
UNICEF and its partners are working hard to assist children and families affected by the floods. A critical part of this effort involves setting up child-friendly spaces – safe areas for children to learn and play – and to restore some measure of normalcy to their lives once again.
Child-friendly spaces teach life skills and offer a much needed psycho-social support system. They also provide recreational activities that help to raise the spirits of children traumatized by the horrors they’ve witnessed. UNICEF takes care to promote gender balance by encouraging the participation of young girls.
“When we first came here, we were very depressed,” said Rehana. “Then some aid workers opened a child centre and asked all the children to participate.”
As the days flowed into each other, word started to spread across the area that a child-friendly space had opened. Slowly children began to trickle in. At the beginning of October, there were 150 children coming in two daily shifts and the numbers continue to increase. This rise has precipitated an urgent need to open two more safe spaces.
“When Rehana first came, she was very scared of all she and her family had gone through and had no confidence,” said Noor, a child rights officer from a UNICEF non-governmental partner known as the ‘Thardeep Rural Development Programme.’ “She felt she was not a good person, because she could not speak or hear like the other children. We began to work closely with her to help her overcome her fear and gain back her self-esteem.”
“At the centre, the workers are very kind,” explained Rehana. “We get to play, draw and we even get dolls to play with. I had a doll in my village, but the floods washed her away.”
Reaching the most vulnerable
UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Dr. Jabeen Fatima Abbas says that much more needs to be done in post-flood Pakistan.
“Though some [people] are going back to their villages, there are still families that will continue to remain here for a few months,” she said. “And with the winter coming soon, we need to upscale our efforts and organize more teams to go out into severely affected districts.”
NGO partners, with UNICEF support, are currently in the process of establishing over 200 child-friendly spaces and around 100 mobile teams that will work to reach children in Pakistan’s most remote areas with psycho-social support and health-related referrals. The teams will also help with an essential identification of country’s most vulnerable children.
Education, health and water, sanitation and hygiene are all provided and have been integrated into the basic social services being afforded to the flood victims.
Although humanitarian assistance has addressed child protection, much more remains to be done on key issues such as tracing missing and separated children, providing psycho-social care for traumatized children and preventing discrimination and abuse. UNICEF urges the international community to continue their support for child-friendly spaces like the one Rehana now attends – and enjoys.
“I love the centre,” she said. “They even teach us writing and alphabets. I want to stay here and learn to read.”