Thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic
Children and adolescents in Central Java learn new skills to fight discrimination against persons with disabilities and mental illness.
Ariel Fitriani has never let her blindness get in the way of achieving her dream of becoming a professional singer. The bubbly 17-year-old studies at a public vocational high school in Surakarta City, Central Java, majoring in Javanese music ensemble or Seni Karawitan. After she graduates, she wants to enrol in the prestigious Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI). Ariel aspires to become the first blind karawitan composer and plans to establish a karawitan studio for other young people with disabilities.
Ariel’s dreams, however, were placed on hold at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted her movement in a way that her blindness had never done.
“For more than a year, I was stuck at home taking classes online. It has been difficult for me because vocational school is all about practice and hands-on experience. But remote learning meant that there is no teacher who could accompany me,” Ariel explained, still cheerful and articulate, despite the disappointment she felt inside.
“I used to sing at public events and perform the gamelan set. I was also an active member of the local disability community and took part in many different events,” she continued. “But since the pandemic, I have not been able to engage with them anymore.”
Ariel admitted that over time, the pandemic started taking a toll on her mental health. It became harder for her to control her emotions, and her self-esteem and confidence began to dip.
Support came in March 2021 when Ariel and her friends from the Semarang City Disabled Friends Community (Komunitas Sahabat Difabel) were asked to participate in a Life Skills Training session as part of the Safe and Friendly Environment for Children (SAFE4C) programme.
The programme, implemented by local NGO Yayasan Setara and the Central Java Office for Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection with support from UNICEF, aims to create a safe and friendly environment for children in 10 districts and cities in Central Java Province. The programme includes activities to support children and adolescents to become peer educators by providing life skills information and increased knowledge on protective behaviour practices as well as facilitating access to child protection services as needed. Moreover, SAFE4C facilitates the strengthening of community-based child protection service hubs to promote early detection and response to violence against children and family education, including positive parenting.
Ariel said she was elated to be offered this offline training and received crucial skills that she otherwise would not have learned.
“During the sessions, we learned a lot of things, from digital literacy to safe reproductive health information,” she explained. “What made these sessions so exciting was that they were designed specifically for adolescents and young people with disabilities. In all the years I have interacted with my peers, especially those with intellectual disabilities, we have never been offered reproductive health education.”
“The digital literacy and safety information kits are also important because my friends [with disabilities] don’t have a clue on how to safely use social media and don’t fully understand the risks when they interact with strangers online.”
Shildam Putra, who participated in a similar training in Surakarta City, said he appreciated the programme for raising awareness on mental health. As a child activist, the 17-year-old has been involved in mental health campaigns targeting children through a local radio station.
“The pandemic has affected children in Surakarta City. Many of us lost interest in studying, which in turn affected our mental well-being,” said Shildam. “Unfortunately, public awareness and appreciation of mental health issues has been low. People stigmatize and publicly make fun those with mental health issues, referring to people having a ‘mental breakdance’ instead of having a mental breakdown, which worsens the condition.”
Both Ariel and Shildam are committed to spread the knowledge they gained from the SAFE4C programme to their friends and communities, saying it is highly beneficial for their peers. Ariel and Shildam believe they and their peers will thrive not only during the pandemic but beyond.
UNICEF is grateful to key partners, including Temasek and Government of Australia, for their support to keep the most vulnerable children healthy and protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 Gamelan is the traditional orchestra of Java where it plays an integral role in the cultural life of the people, alongside dance and various forms of theatre. https://www.ul.ie/ullinks/section/arts/javanese-gamelan-unique-orchestra-instruments-ul