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Protection centres offer quake-affected children a chance to leave trauma behind

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Chowdury
Eight-year-old Abda is one of the millions of children affected by the earthquake that devastated a wide swathe of Pakistan’s northern areas on 8 October 2005.

By Julia Spry-Leverton 

HASNABAD CAMP, BAGH, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, 20 January 2006 – “Abda talks very little since the earthquake – she doesn’t seem interested in going to the camp school or to play. She often cries for her mother and little sister,” says Akbarbi, the little girl’s grandmother. Peering out from the smoke-filled interior of their tent in the Hasnabad camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir she adds, “I have seen a lot in my long life, but never such devastation. I have no idea how we are going to live our life.”  

Providing psychological support to vulnerable children

Eight-year-old Abda is one of more than a million Pakistani children affected by the earthquake that shook and devastated a wide swathe of the country’s northern areas on 8 October, 2005. Abda’s story – her mother and sister killed in the disaster, an aunt widowed and injured, now taking care of her as well as her own four children – is a typical one, indicative of the degree of suffering experienced by so many children.

All over the quake-hit areas UNICEF Protection Officers and partners are on the lookout for children like Abda. They are on alert for symptoms of distress and trauma, which was also experienced by adult carergivers, distraught at the incredibly difficult situation they find themselves in.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Malik
Three-year-old Saadia was traumatized when she came to the Banda Sahib Khan camp in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. She has recovered well after attending a Child Protection Centre for two weeks.

“There is critical need for psychosocial support – people are reeling from the trauma the quake’s left behind,” says UNICEF Protection Officer Mannan Rana in Bagh. “They did not get a chance to grieve – they were rushed to pick up the pieces of their lives and have had to struggle to survive.”

Children reveal the damage inflicted by the earthquake’s terror, disruption and subsequent bereavement in different ways. Common symptoms include flashbacks, fear of mixing with others, and a sense of guilt; of being punished for wrongdoing.

“We never had this type of heavy disaster before in Pakistan,” says Farzana Yasmin, working for UNICEF out of Mansehra in North West Frontier Province. “In our system, we have not had mechanisms to protect children and women in such situations, so basically we are starting from scratch.”

Setting up protection centres

Orphans, unaccompanied children, children who lost family members and those who sustained physical injury are assessed as those most in need. Working with the government’s Social Welfare Department and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Save the Children UK and Basic Education and Employable Skills Training to help set up Child Protection Centres has been key UNICEF recovery strategy.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Malik
Children enjoy creative learning and games in their ‘Child Friendly Space’ and like to decorate it with their art work.

There will soon be more than 100 such centres operational across the earthquake-affected areas. “We need to help partner agencies by training them to provide the emotional support needed by affected children, as well as to their parents. It’s important that protection workers can identify and work with mothers in particular, since children’s mental health depends very largely on their parents,” notes UNICEF worker Cris Ratiner.

To ensure high quality care and a network of trained personnel to maintain the relief effort in the months to come, UNICEF has collaborated with partner NGOs Save the Children UK, Terre des Hommes and International Rescue Committee to set guidelines, train officers and community volunteers in the centres to identify symptoms in affected children, and ensure that professional psychological help is available to those in need. 

An estimated 10,000 adolescents and young children aged between 3 and 5 are now participating in the protection centres’ recreational activities.

Equipment provided to the centres comes contained within a UNICEF recreational kit and includes skipping ropes, wooden blocks, games and puzzles, dolls, soft toys and footballs. Nearly 500 of these kits are already in place, with another 200 on the way.

At the Hassa camp, 5-year-old Salma is very happy. She has picked a favourite item from the kit – and now goes about carrying a black and white football with her everywhere.

Zafrion Chowdhury, Shamsuddin Ahmed, Javier Marroquin and A.Sami Malik contributed to this story.



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