Watermarks: Child protection during floods in Bangladesh
1. Child Protection is an area of humanitarian work that has perhaps been largely overlooked by relief agencies over the years, but is now gaining increasing attention. Whenever there is a natural or man-made disaster, children face a wide range of threats. These may include the risk of abduction or sexual abuse, or the more familiar needs of food and shelter. Greater attention needs to be paid to these particular problems that children face during times of disaster. In recognition of a clear gap in understanding of children's experiences during natural disasters in Bangladesh, this study has aimed to capture children's specific protection needs during floods.
In this study over 1000 people took part in interviews focusing on the dangers that children face during floods. The vast majority of the interviewees were children. Parents/caregivers, community leaders and civil society members were also consulted. A questionnaire guide was developed with the help of the Study Steering Committee and finalised after field-testing. Facilitators who carried out the focus group discussions (FGDs) took part in orientation sessions, and gained awareness of potential key child protection areas, such as risks associated with flood shelters, separation, evacuation, abduction, relief distribution, health care, education, hazardous work, and psycho-social distress. Care was taken to consult children and other stakeholders from a range of different backgrounds, for example, working children, students, unaccompanied children and children from ethnic minorities. Interviews were also spread across areas affected by different types of flood, viz.; slow onset urban floods, rural flash floods, rural slow onset floods. Patterns of similar experiences were looked for regarding children from particular groups, backgrounds and locations.
Preliminary analysis of the findings were shared with the Steering Committee, Non-Conventional Organisations, NGOs and International NGOs and considered with reference to a desk review of relevant literature, policies and plans. The main conclusions drawn from this study are articulated below.
2. Many children are repeatedly affected by floods in Bangladesh. It is imperative that organisations working on flood preparedness and flood response engage with children. When an organisation talks of 'providing relief to the flood affected population' or 'consulting with the community about their needs during floods', they must recognise that roughly half of that population, half of that community is under the age of 18. These children have specific capabilities and strengths to offer; they have a role to play before, during and after floods. They also have specific protection needs. Traditionally, it has been assumed that the core elements of a typical disaster response (food, water, shelter and health care) have children's main needs. Any further issues outside of this limited response are often viewed as too specialised and challenging for organisations to address in an emergency context.
This study argues that it is not possible for relief agencies to 'opt out' of engaging with child protection issues. The reality is that all emergency responses have the potential to significantly affect children's protection needs both positively and negatively. Indeed, all organisations implementing flood response programmes in Bangladesh are already exerting impact on children's protection needs; the challenge now is to be aware of these needs and seek to engage positively with children.
3. Child protection issues cross-cut emergency and non-emergency phases because children's physical and social development continue regardless of changing circumstances. Child protection, therefore, cannot be put on hold during floods in Bangladesh. It is not something to be considered only when the 'more pressing' issues of food, water, shelter and healthcare have been addressed. It is not acceptable to take the view that children's needs are not a priority and that they can wait until we have more stable times. Such an approach is never acceptable, but in the case of Bangladesh it is particularly critical that this common attitude is avoided because floods are not a rare occurrence, and on the contrary, affect many children in most years for extended periods of time.
4. It is important to remember that children have rights, as well as needs. These rights are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which Bangladesh is a signatory. Similarly, most non-governmental organisations have signed up to the Sphere Standards. The vast majority of issues raised by children during this study can already be found in the UNCRC or the Sphere Standards. This report is not asking flood response actors to take on any new responsibilities, but instead to implement the standards to which they have already agreed. Efforts must be made to uphold children's rights during times of flood when they are most vulnerable.
5. Issues of child protection in natural disasters must be separated from the grouping of 'women and children' as this categorisation frequently has a negative effect on both parties. It is clear that the needs of women and children together with the strategies for meeting those needs are very much inter-linked, but it is nevertheless important to consider children's needs separately too, when required. The particularities of child protection needs in natural disasters risk being overshadowed by this conflation of their requirements with those of women. Increased attention to the specific needs of each group is warranted in flood response. In addition, there needs to be greater recognition that children are a highly heterogeneous group with varying needs. When carrying out needs assessments, as many children as possible should be consulted in groups differentiated by sex, age and background. Furthermore, children's needs are not static, but change throughout the flood period; therefore it is important to keep talking to children and reassessing needs. In addition, it is vital that needs assessments are in fact needs assessments and not merely damage assessments, as they sometimes appear to be.
6. There needs to be greater acceptance among flood response actors in Bangladesh of the potential for adults in positions of power and trust to abuse children during periods of natural disaster. Verbal, physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect of children, appear to be all too common occurrences during floods. Many children interviewed for this study identified the risk they face from shelter organisers, rescue workers on boats and relief distributors. In other cases, the abuse came from another member of the public, but children still criticise adults associated with flood response efforts for failing to protect them. Particularly notable was the frequency with which sexual abuse of boys by people in positions of power was discussed by children. In contrast, there is a notable reluctance to acknowledge the abuse of children by adults in these positions, (in particular the sexual abuse of boys) by members of the flood response community. The Government of Bangladesh, donors, INGOs and NGOs who directly or indirectly employ adults in positions of power, must take greater responsibility for limiting the potential opportunities for abuse to take place.
Linked clearly to the issue of abuse are the problems associated with bathing and sanitation in flood shelters. Virtually, every child and adult interviewed commented on the lack of adequate bathing and sanitation facilities. Often flood shelters have no facilities, or they are inadequate for the number of people needing to use them, or indeed, adults prevent children from using the facilities at all which forces children to go outside. This not only causes great physical discomfort and mental anguish, but also puts children at greater risk of abuse and abduction. Furthermore, many children are unable to stay in flood shelters and their bathing and sanitation needs are rarely acknowledged or addressed.
7. The extensive protection needs of unaccompanied children demand greater recognition. This group of children faces huge discrimination in a disaster environment and they are clearly one of the 'most at risk' groups. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that they are 'invisible' to many aid organisations. This is largely because unaccompanied children are often refused entry to flood shelters, the places through which most organisations channel their relief efforts to the affected population.
This also raises the wider issue of children from any background who do not, or cannot, stay in recognised flood shelters. Many flood affected eople camp out on roofs, roads, embankments or bamboo structures etc. Children in these situations are extremely vulnerable and are less likely to receive assistance than children in flood shelters as they are harder to identify and harder to reach.
8. Methods of relief distribution have been highlighted as often undignified and discriminatory. To go house-by-house or room-by-room in shelters is seen by NGOs to be too time consuming and not cost effective. However, it should be recognised that this is the established best practice and efforts should be made to distribute relief in this way whenever possible. It must also be acknowledged that to calculate food relief on a household model excludes unaccompanied children who are outside the family unit. Furthermore, greater effort must be made by those providing food relief to include food that is appropriate for babies and infants.
9. A key issue to be addressed is the risk of insufficient communication and coordination between actors at Government, donor, INGO and NGO levels during a flood response. There also appears often to be a knowledge gap between the head offices of large INGOs and the field offices or local NGOs who are actually implementing theemergency responses. It can often be the case that staff in 'head office' write a project proposal that is sensitive to child protection and aware of the Sphere Standards, but the capacity to actually carry out the intervention in this way is missing at the implementation level.
10. There needs to be greater recognition of the experience of floods on the short and long term survive, often leads to increased family tension and increased levels of domestic abuse. However, the vast majority of children interviewed placed great emphasis on staying with their family, even if that means living in worse conditions than those available in a relative's or friend's house.
11. Greater importance must be placed on enabling play and education to continue throughout floods. It is apparent that children's mental well-being is significantly improved if they are able to process and release stress through structured play. There are clearly many practical obstacles to overcome in order to facilitate education and play during floods, but the first obstacle to overcome is perhaps to change flood response actors' attitudes towards education and play and give these key areas higher priority during emergency flood response programmes.
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