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“Child Friendly Space”: UNICEF and partners create safe havens for displaced children

By Judith Sarano

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, 27 November 2009 – Elisee and her best friends are enjoying a break after school, playing with toys and dolls. This could be the story of an ordinary student in an ordinary school, but it is not: Elisee, 12 years old, lives in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP), Mugunga III, in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. About 25,000 vulnerable people live there in plastic sheet houses and receive food rations, but in the middle of the camp, a child haven: the Association of Volunteers in International Service (AVSI) “Child Friendly Space”, supported by UNICEF. 

Since 2007, UNICEF and its partner the Italian NGO, AVSI, take care of children displaced by conflicts in Eastern DRC through psychosocial and educational support. Children suffer particularly from conflicts and massive displacement. Many of them are separated from their family, victims of abuse or have even seen armed men kill a parent. These dramatic situations can cause serious trauma to children who could become aggressive or apathetic.

“I remember the war”, says Elisee. “I heard a lot of noise and I was really scared. People in my village ran away to the camp and we ran away too. I had a lot of nightmares but as soon as I started to play with my friends, it made me feel better. Now I do not think about the war all the time.”

Beyond the trauma
From newborn to teenagers, children have the right to play, the right to access recreational activities and the right to participate in cultural and artistic activities as stipulated in Article 31 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. UNICEF and partners have fully endorsed this principle by creating “Child Friendly Spaces” which are an essential part of the recovery process.
In this safe and protective area, the first phase consists of helping children to normalize through recreational activities allowing them to forget about war, bond with other children and, most importantly, laugh again. During and after the recovery phase, children benefit from early-learning activities, school catch-up lessons, music, sport, plays and drawing. Teenagers can gather in discussion groups where they learn to prevent sexual violence and HIV/AIDS transmission.

Ibrahim is a young boy, aged 13 years old. He has been displaced for two years and is an eager visitor of Child Friendly Spaces. “I like to come here because I can play football with my friends, he says. “I told all my neighbours to come here and to play with me. But now most of them have gone back home. All I want is to go back home (too).”

The volatile situation in Eastern DRC is an obstacle to sustainable and secure conditions for child development. These children are under constant threat of disrupted life due to ongoing conflicts. Around Goma, the capital of North Kivu, people have massively returned to their home areas during the past months. UNICEF and partners have accompanied children in this process and have deployed Child Friendly mediators. But about 25,000 people, of whom 50 per cent are children, are still living in Mugunga III due to lasting insecurity in their home areas and still need protection and assistance.

UNICEF DRC would like to thank the UK National Committee for its generous contribution to this project.




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