The road to lasting peace
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Palasi
A light moment with children while accompanying UNICEF National Ambassador Gary Valenciano to visit flood affected children at Sta. Filomena School in Iligan City.
By Trevor Clark, Chief of Field Office, UNICEF Cotabato
It was late February of this year at 9am in the morning. My colleague Yul and I were asked to foster a dialogue with community leaders who were in conflict to designate a “zone of peace” in a school. A zone of peace is a mechanism by which children in conflict-affected areas are able to access education regularly in a safe and secure environment by engaging community leaders, parents, teachers, state agencies and parties in opposite sides of a conflict. A visit to the school showed bullet holes in buildings and evidence of systematic attacks. It appeared to have been abandoned by its teachers and students. I imagined what it was like for children to study in such an environment. What did they feel when they hid under the desks while their school was being attacked? Did they call out for their mothers, scared, and alone? I wondered also if they had dreams.Did they dream of someday being in a safe and serene place where they live free from fear?
My name is Trevor Clark and I am the Chief of the UNICEF Mindanao Field Office. I joined UNICEF after a number of years with another UN agency where I worked as a Peace & Development Advisor. One common thread in all of my previous positions was my focus on working with and for children and young people.
A peace worker
I have been working in the area of peace and development for ten years in countries like Thailand, Iraq, Guyana, Cambodia, Kosovo, and Serbia. In my years of experience I have seen the ravages of war, how it can tear whole communities and families apart. I have seen children suffer from the brunt of conflict and become orphaned.
When I was told I would be joining UNICEF, I felt that sense you get when you know that what you are about to do is the right thing to do. With UNICEF I manage our various programs on education, child protection, health & nutrition and social policy, but with a peace and development lens. One of the goals of UNICEF in the Philippines is to ensure that the most vulnerable children in conflict situations are protected and their rights upheld. We know that the growth and development of children in conflict situations are affected on multiple levels. For example, a child in the midst of conflict cannot get access to basic services such as education, good nutrition, or help from social workers and other protective mechanisms. A child who has grown up around violence will most likely seek out violence as a way to solve problems. With that in mind there is a greater sense of responsibility for the nurturing and development of a child, especially in conflict affected areas.
Delivering much-needed supplies at Balulang Evacuation Center in Cagayan de Oro during the Sendong emergency. ©UNICEF Philippines/2011/Maitem
Reaching out to the most vulnerable
Together with government and NGO partners, we try to mitigate the factors that hinder the growth and development of children in the ARMM, which is significantly lower than children in Metro Manila or rural communities in the Visayas. We support the government to better understand how children suffer from multiple deprivations as a result of both conflict and natural disasters. We encourage communities to play a part in shaping the peace and development in their area, for the sake of their children. We ask parties involved in the conflict to put down their arms to let their children receive birth registration and vaccines. We also let children speak out about matters that affect their health and safety.
To fulfill these goals, we are working with local governments with the most unreached and disadvantaged children to make their development planning more conflict-sensitive. This entails ensuring a truly consultative planning and budgeting process which places emphasis on the needs of children and parties to a particular conflict.
We are also initiating a conflict analysis that will identify, as a first step the root drivers of conflict, and as a second step determine how we as development partners can design our programs in such a way that they contribute to peace. For example, how can we design a conflict-sensitive breastfeeding program in a conflict affected community so that mothers and those who need to attend a health facility do not fear for their lives? Such a program, naturally, needs to involve those parties to a conflict and work with them to ensure that mothers are protected. This conflict analysis also engages children and youth to express their views. And their views are very powerful.
My work takes on a new meaning when I think about my own children and the future that awaits them. ©UNICEF Philippines/2011/Maitem
Work takes on a new meaning
I believe we never do enough for children in these situations because when something is out of sight it more easily becomes out of mind. I often think about when my first son, Chase, was born. I heard the life transforming effect it would have on me but really did not believe it would be that profound. When I first looked at my child for the first time I saw an innocence that moved me to tears. I know that we forget about those children who live in fear on a daily basis and we forget they have that same innocence in their eyes. I have seen very often, in the eyes of some of the children I have held and comforted, the same innocence, yet they had no one to protect them, to tell them it will be ok. I am reminded of a young boy, who in one night lost his entire family. I asked myself who would look into his eyes and protect him, and nurture that innocence like I saw in my son. He held on to my hand tightly, as if he was hoping that now he would be safe. I know that for the rest of my life I will be there to protect those children whenever I am called upon to act. I hope that perhaps somebody reading this note will want to join me in some way.
I am happy to report that we were able to negotiate willingness of the two leaders to engage in establishing the school as a zone of peace. Today, we are now moving forward to establish a wider peace in that community because these two leaders demonstrated to themselves that if they can talk about protecting children, then they can talk about anything.