Why children must be our number one priority in emergencies

By ChildFund Australia and Plan International Australia
Photo: ChildFund and Plan are calling for child protection programming to be central to all Australian-funded humanitarian responses to ensure children like six-year-old Korun, whose family was displaced after the Nepal earthquake, are kept safe before, during and after a disaster strikes [image credit: Jake Lyell for ChildFund]

Photo: ChildFund and Plan are calling for child protection programming to be central to all Australian-funded humanitarian responses, to ensure children like six-year-old Korun, whose family was displaced after the Nepal earthquake, are kept safe before, during and after a disaster strikes [image credit: Jake Lyell for ChildFund]

Since 2007, ChildFund Alliance and Plan International have been founding members of a global taskforce to advance the way we consider children in emergencies.

This week, two major meetings[1] will take place in Geneva. We will be at the table advocating for the children who will benefit from future Australian Aid responses.

Communities all over the world show amazing resilience when disasters strike. People everywhere spring into action to address the damage done by events like cyclones, earthquakes or armed conflict. It makes perfect sense to address the most dramatic and visible elements of a disaster – like restoring shelter, providing food and ensuring urgent medical care to survivors. But we need also to remember that emergencies can have less visible effects on people, especially children.

Children love routines. They feel the most comfortable when things stay stable and safe. They know what they should be doing and where they should be at different times of the day (brushing my teeth, playing during recess). They like to know where their families are and that they can be with them quickly if needed. Disasters disrupt these routines and make children anxious.

After a disaster, trusted community features like schools can be closed or destroyed, and even the regularity of parents’ presence will change as they must work hard to restore their lives, income and homes. Many of the other regular ways that we look after children are also affected. With adults preoccupied with safety, food and income, there can be fewer eyes to monitor children already at increased physical risks from the damaged physical environment.

Photo: Children walk through the rubble in Sindhulpalchowk District, Nepal, one of the areas hardest-hit by the 2015 earthquake [image credit: Jake Lyell for ChildFund]

Unfortunately, these can also be times that people wishing to harm children can take advantage. Children can suffer abuse and violence or be vulnerable to sexual exploitation or unsafe labour. Authorities, police and justice institutions will be busy restoring order, so preventative measures are a low priority. Responses from social welfare systems that are under immense strain can similarly be challenged.

Child-focused organisations like ChildFund Australia and Plan International Australia carefully consider children in planning and enacting our emergency responses. We do this by working with girls, boys and their families to ensure we tailor our response to their individual needs. As child-focused agencies, this is our mandate. 

We are calling for all humanitarian actors to adopt a child-centred response. That means putting children first. The majority of those affected by humanitarian emergencies are children, therefore focusing on children is beyond good practice. It’s simply a matter of assisting those most impacted, which is everyone’s goal.

In Australia, Plan and ChildFund have led a working group of NGOs this year to lobby the Australian Aid program on ways to better address the specific needs of children in future planning for emergency responses. We want to see child protection programming as a critical component of all Australian-funded humanitarian responses. We also want to see dedicated funds for ‘fit for purpose’ agencies to strengthen the capacities of first responders to identify and mitigate safety risks to children that amplify in the aftermath of an emergency.   

Ensuring the protection of children in emergencies is life-saving and can only be achieved through joint collaboration. We look forward to furthering the discussion this week with our global partners on child-centred initiatives for keeping children safe before, during and after a disaster strikes. 

On the agenda are new ways of protecting children in our emergency work, including the sector’s plans to address the Global Goals, as well as to advance the use of the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Emergencies.

Plan and ChildFund are proud to be a part of setting this global agenda.

[1] The annual meeting of the Child Protection Area of Responsibility group, and the launch of the Global Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action.

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