RAA ATOLL, Maldives, 29 December 2009 - Ahmed Hussain has a tough job. As a social worker in the closely-knit communities of the atoll islands that make up the Maldives, issues like child neglect or abuse rarely surface in conversation, especially with outsiders.
But gradually Mr. Hussain has witnessed a change. "Before we would only hear about cases indirectly from others," he recalled. "But now we hear from the families and even the victims themselves."
A regular sight on his motorbike through the streets of his island home, Mr. Hussain is part of a transformation in child protection services which are helping families in even the remotest parts of the Maldives.
Social services for all
For the first time, social services are being delivered throughout the atolls, thanks to the Family and Child Service Centres. Standing in the main office of the Centre he runs on the island of Ungoofaaru in Raa Atoll, Ismail Azhar was keen to show off the promotional posters and leaflets used in their awareness campaigns.
For him, as for many in the Maldives, services which are taken for granted in many countries are still missing here.
"In the atolls, this is something quite new," said Mr. Azhar. "Before the tsunami, we knew there was a service but it only existed in the capital and we had no idea how to access it."
All that has now changed. With a Family and Child Service Centre in virtually every atoll, staffed by social service workers trained by UNICEF, people are far more willing to come forward to report cases that were for too long hidden behind closed doors.
"People are more open about these issues now, and then they tend to report these cases," said UNICEF Child Protection Officer Hawwa Zahira. "In doing so, the young recruits to this new service have helped to bring about real societal change in their communities. They were resented initially, but now they are feeling accepted."
A protective environment
Five years since the tsunami, change can be seen everywhere in the Maldives.
Not only has UNICEF been working to create a safe environment for children, the organization is also working towards creating a cleaner and healthier place for children to live.
A new state-of-the-art sanitation project on Ungoofaaru Island which links all island homes to a centralized sewage treatment system is an example of this effort, and is making a huge difference in the level of cleanliness.
UNICEF-supported water and sanitation systems and now social services for children have all helped this tsunami-affected island to 'build back better'.