Child-friendly spaces allow cyclone-affected children in Myanmar to enjoy life again
By Anna K. Stechert
YANGON, Myanmar, 5 September 2008 – About a 30-minute boat ride from Bogalay lies Myanmar’s Kyet Taung Chaung village. To access the village, you have to walk through deep mud, climb over wobbly wooden bridges and balance on tree trunks.
From afar, you can hear children singing, accompanied by a guitar. “Wash your hands to keep clean,” they sing with enthusiasm. “Wash thoroughly each of your fingers.”
The voices come from a wooden hut on stilts, which is currently being used as a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space to provide a safe environment for cyclone-affected children.
“Every day, about 100 children come here,” says Tracia Hmuu, who works for a UNICEF partner, the Yangon Kayin Baptist Women’s Association, coordinating activities at the space. She is supported by two volunteers from the village.
Overcoming emotional distress
UNICEF established 101 child-friendly spaces in the Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon Division after the cyclone hit Myanmar last May.
In Kyet Taung Chaung, the Yangon Kayin association is providing psycho-social support for children and giving them a safe place to play in order to help them overcome their emotional distress.
An increasing number of parents have been using the space for child care. Some of the parents stay to watch their children, who laugh as they run and play catch.
Early in the morning, school-age children with UNICEF-provided bags on their shoulders peek through the window of the child-friendly space. More than 20 young children are already there, playing and singing. The older children will return to join the afternoon activities after their lessons end.
Activities after the cyclone
Trained volunteers work at the space, conducting group activities such as drawing, singing and game-playing. UNICEF also distributes nutritious biscuits to the children and uses the space to promote key messages about proper hygiene and child rights.
“Because of the activities here, our children have become happier again in the last few weeks. They have fun playing and they are laughing a lot more,” said one local parent.
Child-Friendly Spaces offers children a return to normalcy. They learn how to enjoy life again, to play with others and to express their feelings through their drawings and singing.
“The best part of my work is making the children happy,” she says. “After the cyclone, the children were so depressed and frightened. But look at them now,” she says, pointing at a group of children who are playing.
Psychosocial support is desperately needed here in Kyet Taung Chaung, where every household has been affected by cyclone Nargis. Approximately 102 people died, 38 of whom were children.
“Eight families were completely wiped out, nobody survived,” said one mother from the village as she held her two-year-old on her lap. She rescued her child by holding onto a tree with one hand and clutching her baby tightly to her chest with the other. She held on all night before the water receded enough for her to let go of the tree and to return to the ruins of her home.
“We were only left with what we were wearing, but at least we survived,” she said.
Everyone here has a similar sad story to tell.
Staff and volunteers at the space also work on establishing community support groups, which are responsible for the child protection.
“Before Nargis, we did not really have an understanding of child rights and were not too worried about protecting our children”, said one parent, of the support group’s seven members in Kyet Taung Chaung. “We are learning a lot, and we are very grateful to UNICEF for all its support. We want to keep the CFS running and also protect our children the best way we can.”