Safe Spaces: The Urgent Need for Early Childhood Development in Emergencies and Disasters
The international community is neglecting millions of vulnerable babies and young children affected by conflicts and disasters, a shocking report by children’s charity Theirworld warns today.
They will suffer from psychological trauma, toxic stress and poor brain development unless their needs are prioritised in humanitarian response plans.
The failure to plan for and finance early childhood development services in emergencies - ensuring "safe spaces" for all children - could have lifelong detrimental effects, according to Theirworld.
More than 16 million babies were born in conflict zones in 2015 - an average of 43,835 per day. Despite that, more than 60% of education aid appeals lack clear plans for early learning programmes or psychosocial support for children under five to access the safe spaces they need to learn, grow and recover.
Theirworld President Sarah Brown said: “We know that 80% of brain development is completed by age three and 90% by age five.
"Babies and toddlers absolutely cannot afford to wait for the end of a crisis to learn, play and receive care.
"Children are incredibly adaptable and resilient. With proper services and support, and close relationships with nurturing caregivers, they will not only survive emergencies but manage to thrive in spite of even the most adverse circumstances.”
After five years of war in Syria, 3.7 million children - or one in three of all Syrian children - have only ever known life in a violent conflict and 306,000 Syrian babies were born as refugees.
Zeinah - a psychosocial support expert working with Syrian children in Turkey - said: “Safe child-friendly spaces are helping the youngest children to forget and recover from what they have been through in Syria.
"Children are psychologically and physically affected by the war. When they first come they don’t interact with other children and hardly speak.
"Sometimes children as young as three and four are telling me about their dreams. They are seeing war in their dreams - people have died, often relatives and loved ones."
Zeinah said she deals with each case individually and over time most children are getting better. They are able to laugh, play with their friends and be more interactive.
She added: "Parents have a lot of pressure and stress at home. They cannot always pay interest in their children - but it is important to work with the parents to get more involved with their children to support their early development needs.”
Early learning programmes increase young children’s readiness for school and improve learning outcomes. This is especially important in emergencies because children living through conflict are much more likely to be excluded from school or fall behind academically.
Theirworld is working to ensure that more attention and resources in this critical time in a child’s life is prioritised.
One mother who knows the value of that is Baria, a 41-year-old Syrian teacher who fled her home in Al Raqqah and arrived in Turkey as a refugee two years ago.
She now works at a children's centre and has three children of her own, aged three, four and seven.
"Early childhood education is extremely important, as it helps the child to understand the difficult situation we are in and to develop despite the hardships," said Baria.
"These children have lost everything. Before if they would want to play in a park they would be frightened that a plane would bomb them. They had lost their childhood innocence.
"They don’t realise that they are safe now. We have to work to return the child’s sense of security which they have lost."
Baria believes children who go to kindergarten before primary school will benefit hugely in their development and education.
She added: "The children will already have a routine installed into them, where education is part of their life. They will have the basic reading and writing principles before starting school.
"They will know how to work with other children and will have confidence in themselves and would have developed a sense of independence."