Written By : Ms.Essar Batool, Former Project Coordinator, Emergency Humanitarian Support in J&K
Opening lines of a write up have never been truer. The impending danger and the unpredictability of damage caused by disasters, natural or man-made, turn them into dreaded occurrences with far reaching consequences over large sections of the population. Years of development comes crashing down in a matter of hours or sometimes even minutes, destroying the physical and abstract infrastructure of a given geographical area. The massive damage to economy, livelihood, shelter and basic amenities is a proof of the extensive impact of disasters and to quote examples we do not even need to go back very far in time.
The earthquake in Nepal and the floods in Jammu and Kashmir are ample proof of how a disaster has no regard for life, heritage, infrastructure or development. However the first response to any disaster is directed, justifiably, to rescue, rehabilitation of shelter, food, and other aspects of survival for all affected without first identifying who are the most vulnerable among those affected who need specialized attention. Children can safely be classified as the most vulnerable group during disasters, given their dependence on adults for fulfilment of basic needs of safety, shelter and food. In the late 1990s the number of children affected by disasters was estimated at 66.5 million per year; climate change impacts are projected to increase this to as many as 175 million per year in the coming decade.
However, the more worrying fact is that children are viewed through an adult prism which believes that they will be able to cope with disasters as they are young and carefree. However given the psychological development stage the children are in, trauma and psychological imbalance is most likely to affect them. In context of the recent devastating floods of 2014 in Jammu and Kashmir, increased levels of trauma, disturbed routine, sense of loss and fear among the children was observed by psychosocial counselors of IGSSS working with children.
In societies with well preserved family structure such as in Kashmir, the well being of children is directly linked to those of their parents. In this case as well, the losses incurred post disaster resulted in stress and aggression among adults which were often transferred to the children, who were unable to express or vent their own distress and discomfort. During interactions with children it was found that the loss of routine and familiar structures such as homes, schools, and playing fields abruptly had left the children in a psychological limbo and overburdened them with responsibility to rebuild lives.
The children found themselves being treated as adults with a role in economic and physical reconstruction of shelter and income. Parents and teachers also observed changed behavior, aggression, disturbed sleep pattern and a tendency to get into fights with other children among those affected by floods, clearly indicating a sense of loss and an inability to cope with the disaster. As it is, children in Kashmir also happen to be a ‘red flag’ group having faced traumatic situations in the ongoing conflict. Belonging to low income families, especially those living in rural areas, the loss of safe spaces for children in floods was a concern which left them exposed to probable physical, mental and sexual abuse. The World Health report, ‘Violence and Disasters’, states child abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation and trafficking as issues facing children after disasters. Though there were no such reports post floods in Kashmir, the fact that children were being handled by unknown adults should be a cause of concern, especially when the level of awareness about abuse among children is dismally low both among children and adults in Kashmir.
The major concern that emerged post floods was an increased drop-out rate among children, especially in the age group 9-14 among boys, as reported by school teachers. The major cause for this was found to be the involvement of these boys in labour to help with the economic reconstruction of their lives.
A similar drop-out rate among girls was observed in all age groups; girls were held back at homes to help with domestic chores and were involved in physical labour at home. The destruction of school infrastructure also contributed to the low attendance in schools post floods, with children, especially young children, reporting trauma and fear. The children also worked as casual labour in Srinagar city for low wages thereby paving the way for their economic exploitation, apart from the loss of academic routine. The access to basic amenities among children has been seen to vary in certain disasters of low impact, with the post disaster intervention actually paving way for better facilities. However, this scenario remains an uncommon, though desirable trend. The scenario in Kashmir was contrary to this with no or insignificant improvement in access of children to basic amenities, especially in the rural areas where the access to basic amenities is already poor. The destruction of local toilets (known as dry latrines) forced children and especially female children to defecate in the open even during nights, violating not only their privacy but endangering their safety as well. However, it is also pertinent to note, that focusing only on children during and post disasters can prove to be as myopic as including them in the general populace. A more balanced and inclusive approach would look at the absence of research and comprehensive policies for children that separate them from the general adult population. To respond to a vulnerable group that is severely exposed to physical and psychological threats, it is important that children be viewed for their actual vulnerability rather than for the perceived vulnerability, by adults. To be prepared to save children from massive repercussions of disasters, they need to be a priority group for any emergency response. The role of agencies working for child welfare is clearly defined here; grassroots knowledge in partnership with governance mechanisms can result in protective and rehabilitative policies and programmes for children in disasters.