Protecting vulnerable, flood-affected children in the Philippines

By Alex Gregorio

ILIGAN CITY, Mindanao, Philippines, 3 January 2012 – Janella Delfino, 9, sat quietly on the front steps of the San Lorenzo Ruiz Parish Church in Barangay Hinaplanon, in Iligan City.

Her aunt, Arlene Pakada, hugged her. Like her niece, Arlene was staring into space, her face unmoving.

They appeared from a distance to be a mother and daughter, idling on the front steps of a church before the start of mass.

But their reality is much bleaker: Arlene has just lost both her children, aged 1 and 7, to the murky floodwaters that raged through Iligan on December 16, after a massive rainfall brought by Tropical Storm Washi.

Janella is also grieving. Both her father and mother drowned in the floods, and she lost the only home she has ever known.

Survivors in mourning

“She cries every morning when she wakes up,” Arlene said, herself in tears. “Each day since we got here, she wakes up crying. She still looks for her mother each morning, even though she knows the truth.”

Janella survived the disaster because of the foresight of her grandfather. Correctly guessing that the coming storm would bring floods, he took Janella to a house on higher ground before the storm arrived.

Arlene, on the other hand, survived with the help of her friends and neighbours. She was walking home with seven friends the night the floods arrived. Forming a human chain, Arlene’s friend, Jocelyn Bado, said they refused to let go of each other until everyone was safe.

Janella and Arlene are now living in a temporary shelter in San Lorenzo Ruiz Parish, one of the evacuation centres in Iligan City, alongside other children and women also mourning their losses from the floods.

Protecting children in the aftermath

In the chaos that follows natural disasters, many children end up separated from their parents and families. Some, like Janella, lose both parents. And when children are displaced by these events, they can be cut off from critical social support and schooling.

Sexual and gender-based violence is also disturbingly common after emergencies. UNICEF works to protect children and women from exploitation in the aftermath of disasters, focusing on prevention, protection and recovery.

To this end, UNICEF puts a high priority on keeping families together and reuniting children who have been separated from their parents, siblings or extended family. Children must also be helped to deal with the shock of the event and the panic and losses that follow. Play, recreation and learning activities can assist children’s recovery, and must be promoted in disaster-affected communities like those in Iligan and the nearby Cagayan de Oro.

To date, Tropical Storm Washi, locally known as Sendong, has affected over 700,000 people. The children among them face great risks to their health, education, nutrition and well-being.

UNICEF’s initial response included critical water and sanitation services in affected areas. It is now mobilizing teams of child protection volunteers to work with affected children, particularly those exhibiting signs of severe stress. UNICEF has also dispatched tents and recreation kits to facilitate the creation of child-friendly spaces in evacuation centres. In these spaces, children can play, learn and begin to resume a sense of normality and safety.

UN joint appeal

UNICEF and its UN partners have launched an appeal for US$28.6 million to support affected children and their families in the wake of Tropical Storm Washi.

The appeal will assist UNICEF’s efforts to ensure all children affected by this disaster are protected, with access to safe water, proper nutrition and education, to ensure they are fully equipped on the long road to recovery.