“If Mummy is here”
By Wendy Myint-Myint Hla
"If you’re here May May (Mummy in Myanmar), I will not die will I?" These were the very first words spoken by 3-year-old Thè Su Wai from Kungyangone Township, when she saw her mother in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
When the 10-foot tidal wave surged into Thè Su Wai’s area, she was swept away from her mother, somehow managing to survive by holding on to a strong tree.
Her sister, Ei Ei Nyein, says that "whenever there is rain my little sister is afraid and clings to our mother”. Clinging to a caregiver is one of the signs children typically show after a distressing experience such as a natural disaster like a cyclone.
Pa Pa, like Thè Su Wai, is also a 3-year-old survivor of Cyclone Nargis. Pa Pa is from Phayargyi Village in Twante Township. All of the huts in her village were destroyed and some of her neighbours died as a result of fallen trees. Pa Pa escaped injury, but endured cold temperatures and was lashed by heavy rains and winds until they subsided hours later.
Pa Pa and her mother found their way to a temporary shelter at a Pagoda in Phayargyi Village.
As of May 18, they were only two of the tens of thousands cyclone victims – many of them children – seeking protection in 120 temporary shelters. Of the cyclone affected populations across Yangon and Irrawaddy Divisions one third to 40% are estimated to be children.
Like Thè Su Wai and Pa Pa, there are many children who have experienced fear and distress, and this could last for quite some time. One of the ways in which UNICEF is helping children is by setting up child-friendly spaces in temporary shelters.
These spaces offer care and protection for children and young people, especially those who have lost or been separated from their families. With the help of community members who are offering rooms and other suitable areas, these spaces are providing children with a sense of stability, routine, supportive relationships, and emergency educational support - and most importantly they help children return to some sense of normalcy.
"We have never seen these toys before" said Pa Pa's mother while she was watching her daughter playing with toys provided by UNICEF at the child-friendly space. Pa Pa, being a bright girl, needs no instruction on how to use the toys or games.
In partnership with INGOs, UNICEF has been providing technical support for recreational activities, life skills, non-formal education and first-aid care. Children are also being taught how to help protect themselves from strangers who may cause them harm, and how to look after their own personal hygiene. Child-centred learning approaches such as singing, storytelling and playing games are being used.
When children visit a child-friendly space, their names are registered – ensuring that separated and unaccompanied children affected by the cyclone can be identified. Staff are also able to attend to their medical and emotional needs, and because the children are in one space, the more serious cases requiring referral can be quickly identified and helped.
The child-friendly spaces are also serving as makeshift schools while UNICEF works towards getting children back to school.
UNICEF and its partners have set up child-friendly centres in Yangon and Ayeyarwady Divisions in collaboration with communities.
Challenges lie ahead in identifying spaces for these initiatives as communities who offer space are busy attending to the needs of affected families, and because of the damage, adequate spaces are scarce.