Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Caring for children growing up alone after the tsunami

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005
Suba lost her mother in the tsunami. She now lives in a makeshift camp with her siblings.

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, 1 March 2005 - Fourteen-year-old Suba couldn’t hear the thundering roar of the giant waves that claimed her mother on that fatal December Sunday - she is unable to hear or speak since birth. However, Suba saw the killer waves and felt their power. Fortunately, she managed to escape from the disaster.

Suba’s home for the time being is in a tent at a makeshift camp. She lives with her older sister Vinorin on Sri Lanka’s devastated east coast. The soaking monsoon rains and steaming humidity have only magnified their discomfort in the crowded camp.

Today, two social workers from Save the Children in Sri Lanka are here to find out who she is and if she may need support or counselling to cope with the difficult times which lie ahead.

Suba reads their lips with her hawk-like brown eyes, delivering answers to her sister Vinorin through a series of graceful, lightening fast hand movements. Vinorin then translates that, as a child, Suba was sent to Colombo to learn sign language and is now a pupil at a school for the deaf in Batticaloa. Their father, a fisherman, died four years ago, and with the passing of their mother in the tsunami, no one can even confirm Suba’s exact date of birth.

Vinorin confides to the team that her greatest concern now is being able to feed and educate Suba, along with their younger brother. “We were a poor family even before the tsunami took everything away. I just don’t know what we’ll do.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005
Two social workers visit Suba to find out if she may need support or counselling to cope with the difficult times which lie ahead.

The tsunami has spelt the end of certainty for thousands of Sri Lankan children like Suba and her siblings. “This is a tough and painstaking process,” says a social worker from Save the Children, which in partnership with UNICEF and the International Labour Organization, has been documenting and registering all unaccompanied, separated or orphaned children throughout the country. Once completed, the long process of tracing family members and reuniting the children with parents, siblings, extended family, or home communities will begin. 

“The process of identifying these children was priority from the very beginning,” says UNICEF’s head of Child Protection in Sri Lanka, Bo Viktor Nylund. “The teams swung into action very quickly to collect data so we could get a grip on the impact that the tsunami had on children. Because UNICEF has a great deal of experience in Sri Lanka, and has spearheaded important child protection initiatives - particularly in the northeast - this has given us considerable hope.”

In the initial emergency phase, UNICEF and partners distributed leaflets in camps to raise awareness on how to protect children. “In environments like this, children are much more vulnerable to violence, unscrupulous exploitation and abuse, which is why it is essential to identify them, and reconnect them with their relatives and communities as quickly as possible,” explained Nylund.

Preliminary figures show that over 1,100 children lost both their parents, and the vast majority of these children are being cared for by their extended families. Another 3,600 children have lost one of their parents. The challenge now will be to support the large numbers of single-headed households with children.

“The huge outpouring of financial and other resources - and a much heightened awareness of the importance of protection issues - offers an opportunity to strengthen social protection systems for all children and women in Sri Lanka, not just in the immediate post-tsunami period, but into the future as well,” added Nylund.


 

 

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