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India: Puppets help heal children

© UNICEF video
A puppet show helps alleviate the boredom and difficulty of life in a temporary camp for people left homeless when the tsunami hit Tamil Nadu, India, in December 2004.

By Rob McBride

TAMIL NADU, India, 7 September 2005 - In the drabness of a temporary camp for tsunami survivors, the brightly coloured puppet show is an instant hit with the children – and a welcome relief from the misery of the monsoon season.

The puppeteers had hoped to stage the event in the open, but the unrelenting rains have forced them into the open-sided hut that acts as the meeting place for the residents of Thuraippakam camp on the outskirts of Chennai. The children crowd in, watching in awe, little ones at the front, the bigger children behind. Standing among them is 11-year-old Geeta Venkatesh. 

She and her family have been living here since the tsunami waves took their home, on the Tamil Nadu coast of southern India. We follow her back through the waterlogged alleyways that separate the corrugated tin huts to the one room her family now call home. Here she lives with her mother, father and two sisters.

Elsewhere in India, the monsoon is a cause for celebration, signalling an end to almost unbearable heat. But not here.

“When it rains, life is miserable,” says Geeta’s sister, 17-year-old Kavitha. “We can’t go anywhere, there’s no school and our parents can’t work.” Along with the other family members we squat together on the floor of the hut, which we are told can flood when the rain is particularly heavy. “Most of all, we have a problem with snakes,” she complains. “When it rains, the snakes get into the camp.”

More than half a year on from the devastating tsunami, life is still tough for many of its survivors. In this one camp alone, 1,400 people are still waiting to be permanently re-housed; the number of people in India displaced by the tragedy has topped 95,000.

© UNICEF video
Puppets organised by UNICEF help alleviate the hardship of life for children in a temporary camp.

Now, helping the recovery process, an initiative supported by UNICEF has brought together a variety of different agencies and NGO’s to work with the government on developing a long-term plan.

UNICEF Child Protection Officer Saji Thomas explains the problems they face. “There are fears about children getting into child labour because of the disturbed social condition,” he warns. “There are fears of children dropping out of school. There are serious concerns about early marriages.” But what also concerns UNICEF and other agencies is the increased vulnerability of young to physical or sexual abuse.

The hope is that together they can develop a comprehensive child protection programme to create a protective environment for the ‘tsunami generation’.

“The government for its part has done whatever is possible,” says Ashok Ranjan Mohanty, the government’s Commissioner of Social Defence.

“But,” he added, “it’s a very widespread area. So obviously the NGO’s have to do their job.  All put together, the NGO’s, the Government and other organisations have done our best… against the disaster.”

Back at Thuraippakam camp the glove puppets of the Myrtle Social Welfare Network – a group funded by UNICEF – make their own contribution by entertaining and educating the children in the camps.

“We’ve found it is a very effective medium, especially among the tsunami-affected children,” says puppeteer, Venkatesan Williams. “They are coming out of the stress. You can see that from our show.”




29 July 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports from Tamil Nadu, in India, on efforts to improve life for children living in temporary shelter after the tsunami took their homes last December.

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