In earthquake-hit PNG, children suffer from trauma long before the disaster
David*, 10, was sleeping when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the highlands region of Papua New Guinea.
David*, 10, was sleeping when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the highlands region of Papua New Guinea. As the house began swaying, David got up, grabbed his roommate and ran as fast as he could to his caretaker. He held her tight, asking her not to leave him behind.
“Everything will be alright, I told them. Or we’ll all go to heaven.” said Michelle*, who is providing care for David and 12 other children.
Like many children in Papua New Guinea, David has already suffered much trauma in his life: a mother accused of witchcraft, abandoned by his parents, left to fend for himself at the age of 8, and exiled from his village. The earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks add yet another layer of trauma for many children like David.
The morning after the quake, Michelle and the children walked around the house. They were lucky — no one was injured, and their property was not damaged. Yet six weeks after the massive earthquake, the children still suffer significant stress as hundreds of aftershocks continue.
David, a shy, observant boy with sparkling eyes, is worried that the earthquake may take his caretaker and other children away from him. Without them, he has no one else in life, and nowhere to go.
“They are all very frighten even now,” Michelle said. “The young children still cry. They run to me every time the earth is shaking.”
UNICEF is currently setting up 26 child-friendly spaces (CFS) to provide psychosocial support services for more than 14,000 children in the severely-affected areas, including the Southern Highlands Province.
The CFS are safe places where children can receive psychosocial support to regain a sense of normalcy, play and learn life skills, including good hygiene practice. At the same time, outreach teams are visiting communities to organize recreation activities such as music and sports, and identify children in need of psychosocial support.
In the aftermath of the earthquakes, UNICEF is calling for increased attention to the stress and trauma among children, particularly in a country with already high incidences of violence, abuse and neglect.
Available data suggested that girls and boys in Papua New Guinea experience some of the highest rates of violence in the Asia-Pacific region. About 75 per cent of children report experiences of physical abuse and about 80 per cent experience emotional abuse during their lifetime.
“The pre-existing conditions of violence and abuse with the additional impact of the earthquakes can really pose long-term negative consequences to children’s development and their overall well-being,” Hennie Kama, UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist said. “Not only do we need to urgently address stress and trauma caused by the earthquakes, but also the psychological damage that children are experiencing for some time from the existing violence in society.”
Children who have suffered from trauma have an increased risk of delayed development, mental health disorders, depression, self-harm and suicide, she added.
David was born in a remote, rugged village in the mountainous terrains of the Southern Highlands. When he was five, his mother was accused of witchcraft, known as sanguma in local language. Beliefs in sorcery remains widespread in many parts of the country, especially in the Highlands region, and such accusations often lead to brutal attacks and murder.
Fearing violent attacks, his parents ran away, leaving him behind with his aunt. The parents never returned for him.
David’s life became more settled since, but the earthquakes have made the lives of thousands of children like David much harder. Strong aftershocks were happening on an almost daily basis, and children were never sure how bad they might be.
Since the quakes, however, David now has access to a UNICEF-supported CFS where he can play with friends and receive support for the trauma he has suffered. UNICEF is also working the Government to set up temporary learning spaces, provide education supplies as well as train teachers on psychosocial first aid to help children get back to normalcy.
Almost every day after school David visits the child-friendly space to play before heading home to help Michelle prepare dinner. “I like playing soccer with my friends here. I feel happy when I play,” David said with a cheerful smile.
“I want to be a policeman when I grow up.” David added. He did not say why, but dwelled into a long silence with tears in his eyes.
Much more will be needed to help children and families get back on their feet to start smiling again.
- * not their real names