The six key messages children shared are that:
They want a sense of normalcy restored as soon as possible- routines that fill the day and make them feel positive. This means proper school hours and lessons (albeit it in temporary locations), provision of play and ‘hanging out’ space, and structured activities (younger children) or structured opportunities to help others and contribute to the recovery efforts.
They feel grateful to have survived and described stronger empathy, altruism and thoughtfulness toward others than before the earthquake.
They feel fearful and emotional at times but there seems to be limited understanding and awareness about appropriate recovery activities for children.
They need assurances that lessons are learned about the location and construction materials used in housing and facilities in the future.
They are eating less quantity and less diversity of food.
Adolescents receive less relief and support than primary-age children
Why listen to children?
Children’s experience of disasters differs from adults. They have priorities and needs that only they can accurately articulate. They have a right to participation2 . In order to respond better to their needs we must find ways to help them share their experiences, their feelings and their ideas for improvements.
Where did we go?
We selected two locations in each of three affected districts (Palu, Donggala and Sigi) based on secondary data which seeks to identify the more affected and disadvantaged areas. We intentionally selected both rural and urban locations and those on the coast and inland.
With whom did we interact?
A total of 244 children participated. 150 were primary-school age children (54% girls, 46% boys) and 94 secondaryschool age adolescents (52% girls 48% boys). We also had opportunistic interactions with pregnant women and caregivers of small children to include their perspectives.
How we listened to them?
Our key principle was to put children at ease. So we emphasised playing with younger children and hanging out with adolescents in spaces they felt most comfortable in. This enabled us to simply chat, to get to know them and build trust. We started by asking small groups of friends to show us around each community and point out places that had changed and begin to think about how they felt about these changes.
Gradually, as trust was built, we introduced participatory activities to engage and explore issues further, always doing these in places where they felt uninhibited, safe and relaxed. The participatory activities included drawings of before and after the earthquake (younger children), photojournalism (adolescents), mapping emotions (all), animating puppets (younger children) or magazine cutouts (older children), acting out ‘being the boss’ and prioritizing needs. We were intentionally flexible about each activity and we facilitated many short interactions over several days to accommodate children’s daily activities and recognizing short attention spans. Engaging children in hands-on activities created enthusiasm to participate, put them in the driving seat and moved away from conventional question- answer formats.
What children say are key changes they experience
1. Need for restoration of normalcy
Given that some time had elapsed between the earthquake and this study, both younger children and adolescents were keen to share that ‘things are starting to feel normal again’ and that they are feeling better because of this. The loss of normalcy and the need to restore it as soon as possible was the most significant key change.
The most important element of feeling normal again is attending school. School is primarily a place to meet friends3 . Resumption of school provides an opportunity to interact with friends, get out of the home and return to some kind of routine. In some locations, particularly in Palu, children told us that quite a few of their friends have yet to return to school and that they are eager to see these friends again and feel it would be good for them to resume a routine.
Most children are attending school in temporary tents (provided through relief or community constructed structures) with abbreviated hours and have yet to return to their normal lessons.
Many say these tents are hot and crowded and teachers are often absent. Teaching resources are very limited. But this matters less than getting up each morning, preparing for school, spending hours together with friends and not being idle at home.
‘We miss our regular school schedule’
(primary-age children, Donggala Scenic)
Children across locations were sad about the loss of their favorite play and hang out spaces. Like school, these places provided opportunities to get out of the home and interact with friends.
In Donggala Scenic, an area formerly known as a place for leisure activities on the beach, younger children described how they had lost almost all of their favorite play areas including a small dock, their football field on the beach, the area of ketapang trees, and the community library. Only their volleyball field, located on higher ground, remains. The problem in some locations is not just earthquake and tsunami damage but occupation of former football fields and play areas by relief camps and temporary housing.
Adolescent boys have been able to establish new ‘hang out’ areas more easily than girls or younger children because of the greater freedom given to them to go around/outside of the community and their access to motorbikes. In some cases, adolescent girls have found that their parents have also become more protective and restrictive since displacement to camps or temporary accommodation. These issues are affecting girls’ opportunities and space to socialize.
Children shared that the sense of normalcy is also restored through engaging in household chores. This, like school, provides routine but also provides something to do so that their time is occupied and they feel less bored. Adolescents repeatedly shared not having enough to do (especially as school time is short and study limited). For example, adolescent girls in Sigi Upper felt they were, ‘just doing the same things over and over again.’ In their search for things to do, adolescent girls in Palu Industrial said they had joined a reproductive health information session which was actually targeted for mothers.
With school-related work and activities still limited, in many locations religious activities have filled part of this void for both younger children and adolescents. For example, children said they like to attend activities at the mosque or church (especially boys in Palu Industrial and Sigi Upper). This is providing something to do and structure to the day and many children shared that they felt they wanted to pray more than before the earthquake (especially girls in Palu City, Palu Industrial, and Donggala Scenic). Some described these activities as helping them feel better or fulfilling a need to become a better person after surviving the disaster.
2. Increased feelings of altruism
Another key change children shared relates to how they see relationships. Children in all locations shared how they had become more aware of others since the earthquake, especially others’ needs and how they were coping with their situations. They recognized that their parents were facing hardships, describing their busyness and preoccupation around their homes including stress and a tendency to get angry more easily. Some children shared their parent’s anxieties that they had not been able to return to their former livelihood routines yet like fishing or cultivation. Other children were concerned specifically about difficulties faced due to loss of income earning opportunities. Children and adolescents talked about purposely giving their parents space and seeking out their friends when their parents are getting angry or being ‘grumpy’. Children also noted that some support for their parents is absent. For example , children in the Donggala locations said that healthcare services were now more limited such as in Donggala Rocky where the midwife has not returned yet.
Children’s enhanced awareness of others also extended to their friends. The change they described is one of greater appreciation of friendships and the need to nurture these friendships. Playing and hanging out together makes them feel better. For example, adolescent girls (Palu Industrial) shared that they have realized they used to spend a lot of time watching TV instead of being with their friends but now see the latter makes them feel happier. They appreciate friendship more as described by younger children (Donggala Scenic) who shared that they do not get as angry with their friends as they did before the earthquake and have realized that ‘we need to take care of each other.’ Here they also talked about rebuilding their homes along the main village road where friends already are and not ‘too far and (where) we would be lonely.’
3. Eating less and less variety
Related to this increased awareness, children across locations talked about how they are eating less food and adolescents in particular felt they could help their parents by limiting their food intake. Children also talked about eating less because they were tired of the limited variety of food available and many shared how they were sick of eating instant noodles.
Breastfeeding mothers in the Sigi locations shared that although they supplemented breastfeeding with formula milk before the earthquake they do so with more frequency now since they are getting free formula milk.
4. Feeling fearful and emotional
While many children shared that they often feel happy being able to play with friends and having some of their routine back to normal, some shared that is hard to be completely happy again with the uncertainty of their situation. Their main worries were about where they are going to live, when their parents will be able to earn again and some adolescents worried if they would be able to catch up in school. Many noted ‘fast and frequent changes’ in their emotions, where they might spend the day happily hanging around with their friends only to suddenly feel sad before going to sleep. Children, particularly adolescents, also talked about feeling ‘miserable’ and ‘hopeless’ because their parents got angry more easily.
Some shared that they felt pressured to ‘move on’. For example, adolescent girls in Sigi Lower said they never tell their teachers about their feelings because ‘our teachers just tell us “don’t be sad”.’ In Palu City, some adolescents have internalized this and exhort their own friends to ‘move on’, particularly those who have not yet returned to school.
Both younger children and adolescents shared that they still frequently feel scared about the possibility of another earthquake, tsunami and flash floods. These worries are exacerbated by the rumours and hoaxes that are spread especially through social media, particularly in the Palu locations. These include fake earthquake warnings and other predictions. Even though many have realized these are hoaxes, adolescents shared that they cannot reassure their parents who still panic and ask the family to pack up and leave.