‘Child Friendly Space’ ensuring Safety and Development for Children during Climate Crisis

On one of the mid-monsoon nights in 2022, when the water of River Yamuna, swelled and caused a flood in its surrounding banks, little did 12-year-old Vikas (whose family had recently migrated from Begusarai in Bihar) know about what is going to happen to his family, who had to take shelter at a nearby school near Mayur Vihar area. There he found many children like him, looking for a dry and safe space to spend the night.

From the next morning, as most parents started to move out in search of livelihood, children remained alone in that shelter camp. Understanding the need of the situation, with support from local government and Bal Raksha Bharat (globally known as Save the Children), could set up a tent especially meant for children affected by any humanitarian crisis, to ensure protection to the affected bunch of minors from any unwanted happening. “I liked to play the games and also studied here!” said little Vikas expressing sorrow about why the space got closed so early.

These children are not isolated examples. They represent the children who stay in flood or cyclone shelters with their families. While their parents are busy with work they struggle with trauma and get constantly propositioned for work in the big city where everything is ‘bright and shiny’.

India is among the world’s most disaster-prone countries with 27 of its 29 states and seven union territories exposed to recurrent natural hazards such as cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, floods, and droughts. Climate change and environmental degradation have further compounded the frequency and intensity of disasters along with increasing the vulnerability of key assets including people, especially children.

A reality that is often overlooked during humanitarian response is that children are the most at risk from the impact of natural disasters and conflicts. In five major natural disasters from 2000-2016, some 17,671 children lost their lives. The 2015-2016 drought in ten states affected an estimated 330 million people, including 37 million children under age five (Source- https://www.unicef.org/india/what-we-do/disaster-risk-reduction). Even the very recent Assam flood of 2022, had affected 8.9 million people of whom 3.5 million were children (Source: Govt. of Assam).

Many aspects of children’s lives are affected adversely including, but not limited to dropping out of school due to schools being used for other purposes such as shelters during natural disasters, missing immunization due to disruption of health services, and the non-availability of nutritious food, clean water, and sanitation facilities leading to malnutrition or challenging other developmental milestones.

At Bal Raksha Bharat, the humanitarian responses are designed by keeping children in the center. Thus, Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) remain the centerpiece of any of our humanitarian responses to ensure children have a safe place to stay when their parents are busy trying to fulfill survival needs, amid emergencies. These are set up with support and in coordination with local governments and the community. The Child-Friendly Space also provides opportunities for peer interaction and joyful learning along with recreation so that children can overcome their traumatized state.

The CFS is set up to ensure adequate protection for every affected child during such a humanitarian crisis, which beliefs in the motto of doing ‘No Harm’ and a ‘Child cannot Wait’. Over the years countless CFS have been developed during various humanitarian responses. The latest being the Assam Floods of 2022, the Delhi – Yamuna bank flood-like situation in 2022, Kerala Floods in 2021, Delhi Violence in 2020, Odisha-Fani response in 2019, Kerala Floods in 2018, India Floods in 2017 (Several states including West Bengal), Manipur Earthquake 2016, Assam Floods 2016, West Bengal Floods 2015, and so on.

In Bal Raksha Bharat, the capacities of the communities are being strengthened during any humanitarian response to make them resilient to future crises. It may look very different in different contexts- it could be a tent, a fenced-off area under the shade of a tree, or a room provided by the community post-consultation but these are made safe and accessible to children. These are often semi-open structures, built with locally available materials and with voluntary support from the community who donate or contribute low-cost labor to build it. These are short to medium-term responses and often operate in tents or temporary structures.

There were no facilities available for children during the flood here in Delhi. Other agencies used to distribute biscuits and went away. But this ‘Tent’ of Bal Raksha Bharat, has been quite useful, where children can get facilities to study and play. I was quite happy, seeing my adolescent kids engaging with others and picking up values and skills to communicate;” Meena Devi, Delhi

CFS is always built in consultation with the local communities to ensure accountability and ownership. The Facilitators who run the CFS are recruited from the disaster-affected community and there is one male and one female facilitator for each CFS. They are trained and regularly supervised with attendance registers in place to track the children and their wellbeing. There are CFS plays Kits for the children and dignity kits for adolescent girls who attend the CFS.

I was a little worried about the safety of my children, as we were staying in cyclone shelter. I used to get worried about them even when I used to go out to fetch drinking water, which was a water station that was located quite far away! But the tents or the CFS, that were developed during this crisis in our locality were of great help. Now I can even go to work in my little grocery shop without any anxiety for my kids”, Sabita Devi, Satpada- Odisha

These are spaces that give children an opportunity to escape the crowded living conditions they may be subject to in camps or any rehabilitation centre, during crises. As they are supervised, they also provide parents with the child-free time that can be necessary for fetching water, earning a living, or other activities. Given that stress levels and incidents of abuse rise during emergencies and children being the first casualty of such incidents, providing children with this space and parents with time can mitigate risks. CFS can be adapted to support young children or adolescents, who are often neglected in emergencies. One of the most important reasons for their popularity is that they offer the potential for the adaptability of activities to diverse contexts, rapid deployment, and low relative costs.

Through this CFS, supports are extended to children, to continue their basic learning of childhood and are supported with coping strategies through socializing activities with other children that further assist a return to a sense of normalcy. In this space, along with education, games, and co-curricular activities, the issues or threats to children and youth are also being identified and addressed. Regular contact with children in a child-friendly space allows the team to observe children and identify those who are vulnerable or experiencing abuse, neglect, exploitation, or violence and provide necessary support and appropriate referrals.

As the CFS runs in shifts, the space can also be utilized to resume the other essential services in the location, for example, it can be used as a Temporary Learning Space (TLS) or even as a space for temporarily locating the ICDS center.

In the afternoon I come to the child-friendly space. I’ve made many friends. We play together. As girls, we need this. We forget what has been happening [in Assam]. My favorite thing to do with other girls is to practice dance and make things with beads. And I like playing football – I’m good.” Vandana Saikia, 13, Assam

The CFS is very useful in protecting children from the post-disaster spike in child rights violations and among the accolades/acknowledgements/proof of replicability received over time, one of the notable ones include the Assam Government’s decision to adopt CFS as part of their response mechanism in the state.

Everywhere, always while addressing any humanitarian situation collaboration is harnessed with the respective State Disaster Management Authorities, line departments, local self-government, and relevant development partners. CFS is a multi-stakeholder setup and each line department has a crucial role in the successful implementation of the same. Effective coordination is essential for avoiding duplication of gaps and appropriate use of resources. Coordination among various line departments and agencies is essential from the very first stages of any humanitarian crisis to avoid duplication of assessment and activities and resource allocation.

Report: Joydeep Dasgupta, Editor, News Sense