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UNICEF and Haitian volunteers working together to protect children at risk

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0090/Smeets
UNICEF workers visit displaced Haitian earthquake survivors in Place Boyer, a public park in the Pétionville district of Port-au-Prince, to assess the number of children needing safe spaces for protection.

Relief in aftermath of Haiti’s ‘double disaster’
 
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 25 January 2010 – UN representatives and leaders from 15 nations are meeting today in Montreal, Canada, to discuss the long-term reconstruction of earthquake-shattered Haiti – with the aim of building back better than before.

At the same time, UNICEF and its partners on the ground are reaching children with life-saving support and protection.

To date, a total of eight supply flights have arrived in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic, carrying essential aid for earthquake survivors. But both emergency relief and long-term recovery are challenging in the context of Haiti’s ‘double disaster’ – because the extreme poverty and other development constraints that it already faced have now worsened significantly.

Still, children are UNICEF's number-one priority the earthquake zone. They need to be found, fed, kept alive and kept safe.

Water, nutrition and protection
For example, to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases – which can be particularly deadly for young children – safe-water distribution continued over the weekend at 115 sites here in the capital, reaching approximately 200,000 people. UNICEF leads the interagency UN effort on water and sanitation in Haiti.

Along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF is also addressing child nutrition needs, with a special focus on proper feeding of infants and young children.

And UNICEF is making progress in its effort to keep Haitian children safe from abuse and exploitation – an area that is receiving increased attention almost two weeks after the disaster struck. A major part of that effort involves the establishment of child-friendly, safe spaces for children who are lost or separated from their families.

Citizen volunteers
Part of what makes UNICEF effective in this work – in the Haiti crisis and worldwide – is its collaboration with community-based organizations.

One such group in Haiti, the Bureau of Citizen Volunteers (known by its French acronym, BIC), has emerged in the aftermath of the earthquake to assist residents of the capital’s Pétionville district. BIC operates out of a large private home located steps away from Place Boyer – one of the district’s many public parks – and is run by a local woman and her husband.

The couple and their daughter have recruited their neighbors to focus on serving earthquake survivors who've been forced to take up residence on Place Boyer and in other local parks and plazas.

Establishing trust
“What else could we do but help?” asked BIC Director Margarite Arsen. “We live in this community. We know the people, and the people know us. Those that are living in the park have it the worst, and there are so many children that need proper care.”

UNICEF child-protection experts are working with BIC to accurately assess the number of children and families who are living in the parks and need assistance.

“More families and children are arriving every day,” said a volunteer aid worker in the area, Maria Garmendia. “There are a wide range of issues affecting children in this catastrophe, and our ability to partner with BIC helps establish trust and helps us to be more effective.”

Safe spaces for children
Aside from addressing serious health and sanitation concerns at the overcrowded Place Boyer, UNICEF and BIC are working to set up safe spaces for separated and unaccompanied children living there and in other parks around Pétionville.

Safe spaces allow UNICEF and its partners to look after children who have nowhere else to go. They can also serve as centres where food, water and medicines are available – along with temporary schools and recreation areas to help alleviate the acute psycho-social stress that children experience during and after an emergency.

Given that nearly half of all Haitians are under 18 years of age, the need for this sort of protection is critical.

UNICEF is now supporting three centres with the capacity to provide 900 unaccompanied children with family tracing and reunification services, nutrition, psycho-social support and medical assistance. Meanwhile, 29 other organizations have set up temporary centres to shelter young people, and there are an estimated 300 orphanages caring for children in Port-au-Prince alone (though not all of these institutions are officially registered).

The number of safe spaces in and around the capital is expected to rise steadily in the days ahead.

Richard Alleyne contributed reporting to this story from Haiti.

 

 

 
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