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Innovations, lessons learned and good practices

DRC: Mainstreaming gender in child protection in emergencies - child-friendly spaces (innovation)

Year: 2008
Major area: Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse
Language: English

An evaluation of the programme on child-friendly spaces (CFS) in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in North Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) revealed insufficient participation of children in the planning of activities and exposure of girls to risks of sexual abuse and exploitation. It also reported that activities did not adequately address the concerns or interests of girls, especially those of adolescent girls. A results-based programming approach was introduced to correct these inadequacies. The new programme included a focus on capacity-building of CFS staff and a redesign of programme activities through promoting greater participation of girls and incorporating more gender-targeted activities, specifically the establishment of adolescent girls’ and boys’ discussion groups.

Note: This project was implemented as a part of a UNICEF’s global project, A Strengthened Response to Gender Equality and Women and Girls’ Empowerment in Emergency, which took place in 2008-2009 targeting UNICEF country and regional offices in East and Southern Africa, West and Central Africa and South Asia.

Children displaced by conflict constitute more than 50 per cent of the 2.12 million internally displaced people in DRC at the end of 2009 (OCHA). Displaced girls and boys are exposed to a multitude of child protection problems including recruitment by armed forces and groups, sexual violence and separation from their families.

To address these issues specific to displaced children, since 2008 CFS has been integrated as a standard activity for child protection in emergency in the DRC. An evaluation of the CFS programme in IDP camps in August 2008 in North Kivu revealed insufficient participation of girls and boys in the planning of activities. As a result, activities offered at CFS often failed to address specific needs and interests of adolescent girls and might have increased the risks of sexual abuse and exploitation in the IDP camps.

Findings from the assessment led to capacity building of CFS staff and a re-design of activities to improve the quality and gender-sensitivity of the programme. The aim of the re-design was to increase adolescent girls’ participation in targeted activities. As a part of this pilot initiative, girls’ discussion groups were created to address their particular needs and the risks to which they were exposed. Based on the initial results and success, discussion groups with adolescent boys have also been introduced. In both groups, the adult mentors facilitated discussions about sexual and reproductive health, protection concerns, gender roles, sexual and gender-based violence, and life skills. The young people identified problems and solutions through discussion and outreach.

The girls’ discussion groups facilitated by the trained NGO staff began in late 2008 when one group was put to the test. Two girls who participated in the CFS programme in one IDP camp were attacked by soldiers. As their attackers attempted to rape them, they sought to escape; while one was killed on the spot, the other managed to go into hiding. The girls’ group at the CFS programme became the source of solace, protection and mourning for the other girls who were deeply affected by the incident. UNICEF provided additional support to the NGO staff in order to manage the girls’ physical and psychosocial needs.

In 2009, UNICEF extended the pilot project of adolescent discussion groups in CFS: 22 groups of girls and 22 groups of boys (average 15 people per group) meet to discuss their specific protection issues and community-led solutions. Only half of these meetings take place in the child-friendly spaces in IDP camps; the rest take place in areas of return. Throughout 2009, ongoing capacity-building and monitoring efforts have strengthened the ability of the facilitators to promote adolescents’ participation and conflict resolution. This pilot project has become part of the programme model. 

As of January 2010, UNICEF and its partners are providing a protective environment to an average of 17,800 children per day by supporting 43 CFS in IDP camps, spontaneous sites and return areas; approximately 115,000 children per day in total.

Qualitative data also reveal that through the implementation of the gender-specific discussion groups, girls felt valued and that their equal rights to participate in CFS were recognized. A trustful relationship was built with their facilitators and peers, and they felt at ease to express themselves on intimate matters pertaining to reproductive health, general health, and sexual and gender-based violence. They also felt empowered by the successful protection mechanisms they had identified and put in place and were self-confident in expressing their needs and limits in their relationships with boys. 

Through on-site visits, child protection workers have recorded the progress of the discussion groups. For example, discussion groups have evolved into a larger movement in villages and camps to reduce risks of sexual violence on the road and in the fields. Groups of girls identified members of the adolescent boys group who have been sensitized to accompany them and provide additional protection. In some areas, members of the boys groups have allied and created community vigilance groups against sexual violence, and report on protection concerns to local leaders or police. Local people reported that after having participated in the discussion groups, adolescent boys are taking on tasks that have traditionally been reserved for girls, like collecting wood and water.


Setting up child-friendly spaces as a standard activity for child protection in emergencies was an innovative practice introduced in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008 as part of a global pilot. In 2009, in order to address the issues of child participation and gender-specific needs, another innovative component – adolescent girls and boys discussion groups – was included in the CFS programme, first in IDP camps and later in areas of IDP return. These groups provide a safe space for participants to discuss, share and learn about issues of importance to them including sexual violence, relations with the opposite sex, parents and peers, and personal hygiene in the camps.

Establishing child-friendly spaces has become a standard activity for child protection in emergencies in the DRC, especially in situations of displacement (IDP or refugee contexts). The creation of single-sex youth discussion groups within the CFS can be replicated beyond the IDP and refugee contexts. In the DRC, these discussion groups have now been extended beyond the displacement context to the reintegration of unaccompanied IDP children to their return areas. Through mobile teams, this activity is supported in villages of return, providing a space for youth to channel their concerns and protection needs during the delicate period of transition and to identify community-led protection solutions.

The DRC’s child protection in transition strategy plans to scale up the youth groups in return areas to support peace education and contribute to a durable return and transition to peaceful development.




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