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Plan staff blog on our work with children across the world.

Ebola outbreak: Next time, make it a different story

Posted by Unni Krishnan, Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response |

Unni KrishnanThe best way to honour the lives that Ebola wiped out is by ensuring that it doesn’t repeat itself, writes Unni Krishnan, Plan International’s Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response.

March 2015: After a marathon Ebola outbreak that has lasted a year and devastated thousands of families in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, projections are that all 3 countries are well on their way to ‘point zero’. However, the threat of a future outbreak is not over.

Thus the anniversary of the outbreak provides an opportunity to reflect on the lessons from the past as well as to prepare for the future, in Africa and beyond. To drive to the future, good drivers always use their rear view mirrors.

Every disaster provides learning opportunities. Mizuta Masahide, 17th century Japanese poet and samurai said: “Since my house was burned down, I now own a better view of the rising moon.”

The best way to honour the lives that Ebola wiped out is by ensuring that it doesn’t repeat itself. Rather than speculate, it is necessary to take a can-do approach. How can we make the response different next time?

Urgent measures

A few urgent measures are vital in order to write a different story next time. Here is my take.

Speed is an important factor for any successful emergency response: Next time, to outsmart the virus, we need to act fast through quick deployment of equipment, specialists and field hospitals. Speed will play a critical role in writing a different story for the first hundred days – in Africa or elsewhere.

Build a strong public health system: Earthquake specialists have taught us a simple lesson: earthquakes don’t kill people or children attending classes in a school. But bad construction and unsafe school buildings do. A strong public health system can withstand the shock of an epidemic or pandemic threat next time, not just of an Ebola outbreak, but also other disease outbreaks such cholera, meningitis, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and avian flu.

Monitor and be vigilant: There are concerns in West Africa about the coming rains. Health and transport systems are exceptionally weak in this part of the world, and we need to close that gap before the rainy season starts. Last year as Ebola spread through communities, unkind weather and the rainy season hampered the response and made roads so waterlogged that nothing could get through. In the absence of strong health machinery and social safety nets, rains and floods amplify the impact of an outbreak.

Prepare and don’t panic: Enhance readiness by preparing and training communities, especially health workers. It often takes weeks and months for external actual aid to arrive. During the initial days of the Ebola outbreak, except for very limited support from agencies such as Médecins Sans Frontières, Red Cross and Plan International, ordinary people were battling this deadly virus on their own. If a community is prepared adequately to respond to Ebola or any single disaster, they can very well beat most of the other disasters.

Start disaster preparedness, first aid and public health lessons straight from schooldays to build a culture of readiness and minimise deaths and devastation. I was at the world conference on disaster risk reduction in Sendai, Japan, last week. A deadly cocktail of multiple disasters – an undersea earthquake, a massive tsunami and a broken nuclear reactor – killed 15,891 people in Sendai and neighbouring areas in 2011. However, Japan has demonstrated that disaster risk reduction and preparedness save lives. It is far better and more cost effective to invest in preparedness than do firefighting after disasters strike.

Don’t ignore the invisible needs: While the priority action should be to stop the spread of the virus and safe burials, it is necessary to take care of the invisible impacts. For every public health crisis, there is an invisible humanitarian crisis, such as shut schools and high food prices. Further, it left many a scars on young minds.

A research report by Plan International concludes that Ebola has challenged the needs of children for loving relationships, for hope and for self-belief just as severely as it threatened their physical needs. Emotional wellbeing and psychosocial care and support should find a central place in relief and recovery efforts.

Orphans that Ebola has created are the true and living face of the outbreak. Many a local family has started taking them under their wings.

The world needs to supplement this true demonstration of African generosity with material support, so that such children don’t end up as an additional burden on families who are already struggling to find sufficient food and school fees for their own children.

Information key in a crisis

Information is a lifesaver in a public health crisis and media and social media can play a critical role. Rumours and ignorance have resulted in attacks on health and humanitarian workers, costing some of them their lives. In a crisis like Ebola, when lives and truth become first casualties, the media needs to go beyond the usual role of reporting. It has a lifesaving role to play to inform, educate and empower people.

After all, you can’t beat an invisible and deadly virus only with doctors.

A vigilant media can also help to make authorities accept the reality rapidly and thus start a quick response. As Albert Camus said, the best way to deal with plague is by being honest about it. Creative collaboration between technology, media, social media, health and humanitarian workers can help to write a different story during the next outbreak.

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Ebola target zero graphic

Mar 24, 2015 12:15 PM

Ebola - a year less ordinary

Posted by Damien Queally, Deputy Regional Director - Programmes for West Africa |

Damien QueallyOne year on since the Ebola outbreak, Damien Queally, Deputy Regional Director – Programmes for West Africa, reflects on how Plan International has responded to the crisis and what it is doing to aid recovery at this delicate stage.

March 2015: When the outbreak of Ebola was declared 12 months ago, no one really knew what a change this would bring about to the lives of people not only in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but globally as people struggled to understand the disease, its transmission, the risks, the devastation, the emotion.

From the day the outbreak was declared in Guinea, Plan International started supporting community awareness raising on the disease and offering practical hygiene advice on how to reduce risk of transmission.

There was a lot then we didn’t know about Ebola, but we did know that good hygiene practices, such as not touching sick or dead people, were critically important.

Over the course of the response knowledge grew, rumours spread, fear came and went and came again, families were wiped out, communities quarantined, farms not tended to, health centres locked down, basic services stopped and social cohesion and norms challenged like never before.

During this time, Plan International remained in the worst affected countries and took this journey into the unknown with the people of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Caring for children

Two boy Ebola survivors, Sierra Leone

Two young Ebola survivors at one of Plan's Ebola community care centres in Sierra Leone

We worked with health and communication experts to develop appropriate messaging to help families and communities to stop themselves getting infected with Ebola. We set up temporary care centres for children who had been orphaned, abandoned or stigmatised because of Ebola and provided them with food, care and a safe space. We worked and continue to work with these children to reunite them with family or foster parents who can provide them with a safe and caring home.

Seeing that awareness raising alone was only part of the solution. Plan International also set up localised community care centres, close to communities with high incidences of the disease. The purpose – to isolate people with symptoms quickly so as to reduce the risk of infecting others from staying at home. Also to offer them food and water to maintain their strength to fight the virus.

People in these centres were tested and transferred to appropriate centres based on test results. Ensuring food, water, education, replacement of essential household items infected with the Ebola virus were also key elements of Plan International’s response.

Of course we did not do this alone, but with the support of local and international partners, community groups, young people who are at the heart of our response, donors, governments and the general public who contributed so much to our response.

The risk remains

Now we are seeing Ebola cases go down, fear lifting, discussions on recovery taking place, people beginning to move around, schools reopening and a slow, but cautious return to normal life. Having been part of Plan International’s response from the outset, this is great to see. But, it is also worrying. I am worried that many now think the crisis is over. As long as we still have cases of Ebola, this crisis is very much alive and the risk of increasing victims a reality.

Over 10,000 people have now died from Ebola and almost 25,000 people have been infected by the disease. However, weekly incidences have fallen to just over 100, with Liberia having no new cases for the past two weeks. Of course a country needs to have no new cases for 42 days to be declared Ebola-free. Given that Liberia borders Guinea and Sierra Leone, even if it passes the 42 day milestone, it could always ‘import’ a case or two.

A child washing hands at a waterpoint provided by Plan

A family using a hand washing station provided by Plan

Keeping all of the above in mind, Plan International’s response is evolving just as the crisis evolves. We will continue to invest in good health systems, knowledge and skills so the gains made to date fighting Ebola will not be lost, but are embedded in each country for this and any future crisis.

We are investing in water, sanitation and hygiene interventions in schools so the risk of falling ill is minimised in the learning environment. Health monitoring is being supported also in schools so symptomatic children can be removed and receive proper testing and treatment.

Teacher training on psychosocial care for children is being provided so teachers can help the thousands of children who have witnessed loss, death and pain. Orphaned children will continue to be supported, with the goal to get those without parents into a stable and caring family structure.

Families need support before the rains come

Support to families to regain their livelihoods will be a critical part of the next phase of Plan International’s response. Families have survived on very little since the outbreak. Many markets have been closed, farms have not been tended to, businesses shut down, loans taken with no means of repayment, savings used and livestock consumed or sold.

For these families to get back on their feet, we cannot focus on business as usual. We need timely and effective injections of cash and in-kind goods into families so they can bounce back from the crisis, and rebuild their livelihoods and lives.  With the rainy season approaching, the timing for this is now.

Ebola has taught us many things. We have learned that something that starts off in one small village can become a global threat. We have learned that fear will not beat Ebola, but bravery and action will. We have learned that decades of traditions, even when faced with death, are not easy to stop.  We have learned that human emotion can never be more greatly tested than when you know that by helping a loved one you can get sick, die, infect others and possibly cause them to die. How could a parent not comfort a child in pain?

From all this emotion and risk, heroes have emerged. People who gave first and considered themselves second. Plan International staff amongst them.

Support Plan's Ebola response

 

Mar 23, 2015 01:50 AM

Embracing the resilience and strength of India's Daughter

Posted by Mary Bridger, Plan's Gender Equality Research & Campaigns Officer |

Leslee Udwin with Freida Pinto and Farhan Akhtar at India's Daughter US premiere

India's Daughter director Leslee Udwin flanked by actors Freida Pinto and Farhan Akhtar at the film's US premiere

17 March 2015: At the 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) here at the UN in New York, we are surrounded by familiar themes and discussions. Delegates rush between meetings, working groups and consultations, discussing issues as diverse as child marriage, safeguarding girls in conflict zones, school related gender-based violence or education financing.

However, despite this multiplicity of focal areas, there is still a common theme to our work this year and a common message being spread from podiums and meeting tables alike; the ingrained and harmful social norms which have held women and girls back from achieving their full potential must be eradicated.

Shocking attitudes

Nowhere was this message more strongly heard than in the US premiere of India’s Daughter last Monday night.

With the Plan-supported film marking the start of the CSW with a star-studded event attracting hundreds of guests, line-ups spread around the block with people wanting to celebrate the life and mourn the death of one remarkable woman.  However, this film was about much more than just young Jyoti Singh. Director and Plan ambassador Leslee Udwin created a story that reflected the social norms that directly contribute to such tragedies.

"A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," Mukesh Singh, one of the 6 rapists convicted in the 2012 attack, says in the documentary, because "a decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night."

The film reveals several of these shocking but ingrained cultural norms that continue to persist among our societies, and it paints with vivid detail the thought processes of the perpetrators who commit these crimes. Only by exposing the attitudes and beliefs that result in violence against women can we address and prevent that violence from occurring.

The important dialogue that this film kicked off and the high-level attention and endorsement that it has received, has truly set the tone for these 2 critical weeks as decision-makers from around the world join together to shape and influence the post-2015 gender agenda.

Advocating for lasting change

The Plan delegation at CSW59, made up of dozens of committed gender, child and education experts from across our global family, has been committed to advocating for lasting change, which means ensuring that incorporating men and boys, engaging with youth and education access are all critical priority areas.

In doing so, we can ensure that not only the symptoms, but also the root causes of violence, harmful practices and discrimination are addressed.

While India’s Daughter was undoubtedly a harrowing film that left most viewers in tears, it also is a film that gives us strength.  We are empowered by the resilience shown by Jyoti’s parents and the young people that flooded the streets of Delhi in the aftermath of her brutal murder.

Jyoti lived her life regardless of the social norms that were all around her.  Asking her father to put the money he had saved for her marriage into her education instead, she showed strength and courage that we here at CSW59 have seen repeated over and over again in the young people around us.

Jyoti’s spirit

Plan-supported CSW youth delegate Nohelia from Ecuador

Jyoti’s spirit was seen last week when 16-year-old Plan delegate Patricia spoke to government leaders about overcoming the stigma and abuse experienced as a child with visual impairment.  It was seen when teens Nohelia and Gema from Plan communities in rural Ecuador took to the stage in front of their country ambassador to share their aspirations to be a surgeon and a congresswomen.

CSW59 may have started with sorrow as we came together to share Jyoti’s story, but it will conclude with a renewed commitment to embrace the resilience and strength of India’s Daughter.

At Plan, we commit to renewing our efforts to address the damaging social norms and structures that enabled such a tragedy and will continue to support young people like Nohelia, Gema and Patricia to ensure that they reach the full potential that was denied to Jyoti.

Read more about Plan and the youth delegates at CSW59

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Mar 17, 2015 01:30 PM

25 years and still living on pocket money

Posted by Stefanie Conrad, Plan International Global Advisor on Citizenship & Governance |
Stefanie ConradThe budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.

- Jacob Lew, US States Secretary of the Treasury

17 March 2015: 25 years after its creation, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) - the world’s most ratified human rights treaty - still lives on pocket money. This occurred to me when listening to states highlight their efforts to invest in children’s issues, after I had addressed them as member of a panel discussing "investment in children's rights" in this year’s Annual Day on Children’s Rights at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Don’t get me wrong. Hearing about the many efforts made by various states to put money to issues important for children and their well-being is encouraging. The examples raised by the distinguished audience showed that the idea that realising human rights costs money is widely accepted, which was (and is) not always the case.

The problem is that thinking about investments in childhood has not evolved beyond allocating money to certain budget lines considered important for children. Children’s rights don’t need pocket money, they need an investment plan.

Theoretically, there is enough money in the world to adequately provide for its 2.2 billion children. But we haven’t quite figured out yet how to use it best to ensure that every child can grow up healthy, go to school, enjoy protection and participate in society.

Not just the poorest countries

In the poorest countries of Africa or Asia, where states’ tax incomes are not enough to cover the needs of their population, development assistance will continue to play a crucial role in realising children’s rights and to direct global wealth towards vulnerable regions.

But this lack of adequate financial planning doesn’t only affect children in these countries. The consequences are increasingly visible in middle-income countries, where statistically most of the world’s poor live today.

In Latin America, more than half of the population under 18 lives in poverty or severe poverty; in Europe, every 5th child is at risk.

Involving children to ensure fair budgets

We need measures to more equitably distribute wealth. We need to better understand how fiscal measures to address economic crisis will impact on the most vulnerable population. We need more effective tax systems, including measures to prevent tax evasion.

The real issue is, however, that hardly any state has a master plan for making the rights of children (nor for other vulnerable groups) reality. Many of the policies that are issued to protect children’s best interest have no corresponding budget and thus remain empty promises.

Such a master plan will need to be built on a better understanding of which rights are compromised and of whom. That requires good statistics, but also must involve ongoing discussions with children and adults – and particularly those who are at the margin of society - to understand where most pressing needs are and how they can be met.

The message emphasised strongly in my intervention on the panel was that involving children and adult citizens in monitoring the use of state money is critical to make this happen and alert government about waste and misuse of funds. Without money we cannot implement the CRC.

No more empty promises

This debate is only the beginning. In the coming weeks and months, a number of policy documents will be adopted on this important issue. These will give states concrete recommendations on how to move from giving pocket money to children’s rights and hold them accountable to create a comprehensive plan on how to invest in children.

Learn about Plan's work in Geneva

Mar 17, 2015 11:55 AM

Playing mind games in emergencies

Posted by Unni Krishnan, Plan International’s Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response |

Unni KrishnanEmotional care should find a central place in disaster settings, blogs Plan International's Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response, Unni Krishnan.

15 March 2015: If you want to respond to and recover from a disaster and its impact on the mind, be prepared, play hard and plan for the future. Some might say it’s a mind game.

Immediately after a disaster, life-saving aid floods into a country. Yet, while humanitarian workers are adept at dealing with the physical needs, they can miss the invisible needs of disaster survivors – such as mental health and psychosocial support, especially for children.

Tropical Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu at the weekend, resulted in catastrophic damage. The storm, one of the worst ever to hit the Pacific, reminds us of the real world we live in and how quickly it can tear lives apart and leave thousands homeless. The storm also affected Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati. The frequency and intensity of storms are increasing with each year, and it is imperative we are prepared to deal with them, both physically and mentally.

In short, the mind matters and healing is as much of a ‘mental’ process as it is a physical one.

Why? Well, there’s only so much a person can take, literally. Liken the mind to a balloon. If you keep pumping air into it and don’t let off the pressure, something has to give.

Disasters result in bitter memories. Psychological suffering manifests instantly and often remains for a long time. These involve normal, natural reactions to an abnormal situation. When you live through a disaster, there is a limit to what your mind can take – much like a balloon.

Safe spaces to heal

Children playing with balloons at a Plan child-friendly space, China

Children playing with balloons in a Plan child-friendly space after the 2014 earthquake in Yunnan, China

Around this time last year, while responding to the armed conflict and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, I came across a group of 100 children in Awerial in the Lake District in South Sudan – some singing, playing and some crying.

Yet, in that crowd, there were 2 girls that stood out – Madiha*, 9, and Lina, 4*. The pair had sought refuge in a Plan International child-friendly space and it was there I discovered their story.

Madiha told me how her hometown of Bor, Jonglei state, had turned into a battleground. She saw armed men killing everyone in sight. The violence spiralled out of control, thousands died and a mass exodus began.

On 28 December 2013, armed men seized Madiha’s mother and father. Later that day, they were shot dead at close range. The young girl witnessed it all.

The girls needed support to heal their wounds - physically and emotionally – and staff were on hand at Plan’s child-friendly space to help them make sense of what had happened.

This real life event is not a case in isolation. Such situations reiterate that mind should find a central place not just in relief settings, but in disaster preparedness and risk reduction work.

The Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction is currently taking place in Sendai, Japan. It provides a good opportunity to stress the importance of a holistic, community-centred approach and to make such work child-friendly.

The prime minister of Japan announced at the conference that his country will contribute over US$4 billion for disaster risk reduction and preparedness in developing countries over the next few years. Material and mind matters are inseparable in disaster preparedness.

The mind matters in a crisis

With disasters frequently occurring across the world, it is imperative adults and children are equipped to deal with them.

Different disasters impact the mind in unique ways. For example, in Japan, the nuclear evacuees face a more difficult future than the survivors of the tsunami, according to researchers from Fukushima Medical University**. While tsunami-area people are improving, nuclear evacuees are becoming more depressed day by day.

As for the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, psychosocial support is important.

Plan International recently conducted research amongst children in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It found that Ebola has challenged the needs of children for loving relationships, hope and self-belief, just as severely as it threatened their physical needs, as many have lost family and friends.

Psychiatrists alone can’t stop trauma

So how do 2 countries in the throes of a huge health crisis cope, when each country employs one practicing psychiatrist each?**

Even if physical health care needs are taken care of, people’s minds require attention. Mind is a complex matter and psychosocial support is not all about expert psychiatrists. You can’t stop trauma only with psychiatrists.

The algorithm of mind healing in disaster settings involves recognising people’s needs, fears and aspirations, social capital. It also requires an early start, long term vision, community support and sensitive psychological and social interventions.

If access to treatment for mental health issues is tough to come by - and that goes for aid workers and disaster victims - a community-based approach must be put in place.

Nowadays the idea of community-based psychosocial care is gaining momentum. It’s cost effective, demonstrates ownership and is contextual. Inter Agency Standing Committee’s guidelines on mental health** and psychosocial support in emergency settings and Sphere Humanitarian Standards** gives guidance, while Psychological First Aid** was a tool translated to Japanese to fast forward community-based care following the multiple disasters of 2011.

Prepare, play, plan

A clown brings smiles to girls affected by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013

During my initial days in the Tōhoku region working with Plan International Japan and CARE Miyagi, I learnt the importance of prepare, play, plan when it comes to disasters and I stand by that motto.

At a global level, donors, the UN must include mental health more actively in needs assessments, programme design – not just after disasters strike, but during and before too.

Planning for the future in a responsible and creative way is essential. Schools serve not only as rescue shelters and places where children can return to normalcy, but as places to educate children about the risk of disasters.

Remember to play hard. Dealing with the mind is complex. But is it too serious to be left to specialists?

No, let people connect with it. Demystify matters of the mind, make it part of popular science – something that is fun to deal with. To make this happen, creative collaboration is key. Plan works with Clowns Without Borders**, an organisation that deploys clowns to offer laughter to relieve those suffering in humanitarian settings.

But, if we really want to make a community based-approach a reality, academics and experts must move beyond the walls of their labs, consulting rooms and lecture halls. Japan’s automobile industry demonstrates that through better engineering and design, you can make automobiles simpler and easier to drive.

Perhaps the mental health sector should take lessons from it. It needs to be open to new ideas and to recognise that innovative plans can come from collaboration and community.

Unni Krishnan is attending the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, which runs from 14-18 March.

Read more about Plan's global emergencies work

*Names have been changed

**Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites

Mar 15, 2015 01:05 AM

Children and disasters: The last mile in action

Posted by Roger Yates, Plan International Humanitarian Director |
It's imperative that schoolchildren know what to do to stay safe in a disaster, writes Plan International Humanitarian Director, Roger Yates, ahead of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.

13 March 2015: The future belongs to those who prepare for it today – and whatever you think, preparation and vulnerability reduction can save you when a disaster strikes.

The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was put in place 10 years ago, to detail the work needed for all different governmental and non-governmental sectors to reduce the loss from natural disasters. In short, it was there to drum home the importance of reducing vulnerability in the face of disasters.

For me, it was a way to bridge the gap between development and disasters. I was involved from the outset and my fellow humanitarian colleagues agreed that governments had to invest in Disaster Risk Management (DRM) structures for their country, and do it quickly.

The reason was there for all to see – and it was devastating.

When the 2005 earthquake struck Pakistan, 19,000 children died, most of them in widespread

collapses of school buildings. At the time, building regulations were not being enforced on public schools – and ultimately it was the children that suffered. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggested that a higher proportion of public schools were catastrophically damaged, compared to non-governmental buildings in the same areas.

A decade on, there has been a huge shift by governments across the world. It’s worked, as budgets have been set aside and governments have been quick to act, proving DRM can and will save lives.

In 1999, a cyclone tore across Odisha (formerly Orissa), India, killing some 10,000 people. Marked improvement in DRM meant Cyclone Phailin, which struck the same area in 2013, claimed just 27 lives as the local government ensured communities evacuated.

Time for a new framework

Now, as the HFA draws to a close, it’s time for a new framework to take the helm and it will be under discussion in Sendai, Japan, as 8,000 people gather together for the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.

For me, the job isn’t done, not by a long shot - and right now we’re approaching the last mile in action.

Yes, many governments have taken the HFA on board and the issue of DRM and vulnerability seriously. In Ecuador, as in many other countries, there is a dedicated National Secretary for Risk Management. It’s heartening to see how the HFA has influenced communities and empowered them to take action when it comes to emergencies.

It is essential these changes filter down to local governments, but it’s imperative that this happens globally and that clear targets are put in place to drive stronger improvements. However, no matter how much money is ploughed into disaster risk reduction, if the message doesn’t reach the community level, there’s no point.

Reaching communities through young people

Children taking part in an emergency simulation exercise at school in Cambodia

Over the past decade it has been clear to see that the most efficient vulnerability reduction programmes are those that grow from community level, and then connect with government structures at a regional, national and international level – so, for me, that’s the place to start.

One way Plan International reaches these communities is through young people.

We want to build a culture of safety, and if children learn about disasters at school, they will be able to share their knowledge with their family.

Millions of children are affected by disasters every year and the frequency and ferocity are increasing. Moreover, when a disaster strikes, children and young people tend to suffer disproportionately.

It is imperative they know what to do, and that’s why Plan has put in place a Safe Schools Global Programme, which engages partners in the education sector to promote schools as a platform for  children and youth to grow up safely.

Keeping schools safe

Worldwide, approximately 1.24 billion students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools*. Yet 875 million school children live in areas of high seismic activity**, while hundreds of millions more face danger from regular flooding, landslides, extreme winds and fire hazards.

With children spending up to 50% of the time they are awake in school, the risk of needing to be prepared to deal with a disaster during school time is very real. Yet all too often school facilities are at risk of extensive damage.

If a school is not built and maintained to withstand an earthquake or constructed to tackle a typhoon, it can cause irreplaceable loss to families, communities and countries – not to mention lifelong injuries.

It can also have a big impact on a child’s education. You just need to think back to the Pakistan Earthquake.

Our safe school programme seeks to build a culture of safety among children and their communities  in areas at a high risk of natural disasters. A safe school provides a learning environment where children’s education, health, safety and security are ensured in both normal times and during disasters.

Zero dead, zero injured

From Bangladesh to the Philippines, I have seen how these programmes have helped prepare children for disasters – and saved countless lives.

After Typhoon Haiyan tore the Philippines apart, I visited numerous barangays (districts) - including Balankayan, Eastern Samar, where the chart on the town council office wall declared “zero dead, zero missing, zero injured” of its 10,226 population.

Yet neighbouring towns saw scores killed when the wrong buildings were chosen as evacuation centres or people stayed put. The community of Balangkayan were prepared and as soon as they learnt about Haiyan, they moved to safety and managed to keep track of everyone.

Now, as the new framework that will replace Hyogo comes under discussion, we are calling for the protection of school children and students in the education environment to be prioritised. I want to see children actively trained on preparing for disasters – something Plan is taking seriously.

Investing in disaster preparedness can and will save many lives – and this starts from a young age. For me, children really are the last mile in action.

Roger is attending the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, which runs from 14-18 March.

 

* UNESO Education For All Global Monitoring Report

** School Seismic Activity – Falling Between the Cracks

Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites

Mar 13, 2015 11:20 AM

Yulisa: We need action on girls' rights, not words

Posted by Yulisa, Plan youth delegate from Dominican Republic |

Yulisa is speaking out for girls' rights at the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Yulisa, 16, from the Dominican Republic is one of 5 Plan-supported youth delegates speaking out for girls' rights at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting this week. Here she explains what has inspired her to push for change.

11 March 2015: I have been in New York (at the CSW-59) for a week, and have felt very happy and proud of myself. In this week I feel that I have learned, interchanged ideas, met people from different countries and, most important, understood different realities in the world and what other girls are also facing.

I feel the support from all here, and everywhere I go I see people give the best of themselves, they want the reality of girls to change. We all have a common cause, we all work for the same objective: that girl´s voices be heard, and the girls´ rights be put into practice, into action. We need action, not only words.

I´ve met girls from countries where a girl´s situation is cruel and unexplicable; girls with physical disabilities, but great intellectual potential that are trying to change the world.

What it means to be a girl

I feel I have some power to change the world. I have met with high-level authorities, with women, men, and girls, and they were keen to hear our experiences, our daily living, to at least perceive and empathise with what it really means to be a girl. Because no one knows what really happens if you are not in our shoes, suffering from bullying, from violence at home...

It maddens me to know that people with the power to change things do not, that they keep on with the traditional schemes; some don’t think girls have the potential to do great things, and our participation is downplayed.

But here, I feel privileged, because there are millions of girls who would like to share their experiences, and they are listening to mine. It´s gratifying to know that I can make a difference!

My hope is that what we are doing does not stay in words, or conventions, or panels, but that action takes place, and reaches our communities. We cannot pretend to change the world if we don’t start in the small places, in our local environments.

I want to make change

And I want to make the change. I want to change the horrible mentality of what many think being a woman, being a girl, means. What being an adolescent means. WE are seen as subjects without rights, without capacities to guide a group, to have an important position, only because we are women, and because, traditionally, they call us the “weaker sex”.

Traditional roles, such as cooking, taking care of brothers, and cleaning are not letting us develop to our full potential. We are being denied the few recreational spaces in our communities, and active participation in local governments.

But after being here, I feel that I have changed. I hope I have inspired other girls from other countries and the USA, such as they have inspired me and helped me learn new things, and new strategies and methods to use in my community and my country.

I hope many have learned more about the situation of girls in the Dominican Republic, and what is really affecting us, and that many more girls from all over can have the opportunity to express themselves and leave the shadows.

Read more about the Plan youth delegates at CSW

Mar 11, 2015 04:00 PM

Beyond International Women's Day

Posted by Rashid Javed, Plan Pakistan Country Director |

Rashid JavedThe quest for gender equality needs to start with girls, and this year we have a chance to make sure everyone knows and acts on this reality, blogs Plan’s country director in Pakistan, Rashid Javed.

9 March 2015: The early 1900s were a time of great turmoil for everyone, especially women. With massive changes in industry, economy and policy, women around the world seized the opportunity to rally for their rights in pursuit of a better, equitable and just future.

This era proved a flashpoint in the movement for women’s rights in countries around the world. Since then many battles have been won, but the campaign against intolerance, segregation, oppression and inequality is far from over.

Since the first International Women’s Day was marked in 1911, the world has seen improvements in many areas of women’s equality. However, progress has been uneven and varies widely between and within countries; we have yet to see the kinds of transformative shifts in structures and attitudes to achieve true gender equality around the world.

As the women’s rights movement evolved, it also came to recognise and address the discrimination that girls and women face even in the early years of their lives. Girls, adolescents, and young women continue to face barriers to equality at home, at school, and throughout their daily activities that will affect their entire lives.

Time to ‘make it happen’

Plan youth advocates Nasreen, Kinza and Hijab hand over the Girl Declaration to Pakistan's president on International Women's Day

Keeping this in view, the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, 8 March, was aptly titled “Make it happen” – a prodding reminder to the international community that although significant milestones have been achieved in the quest for gender equality, a lot more still needs to be done.

This needs to start from the beginning: with girls, adolescents, and young women empowered to realise their rights and to fulfil their potential both now and as adults.

In 2000, world leaders outlined the Millennium Development Goals* (MDGs) consisting of 8 goals with measurable targets and clear deadlines for improving the lives of the world's poorest people and eradicating poverty by 2015. These goals included promoting gender equality and empowering women.

Post-2015 agenda

The MDGs have been instrumental in spurring global debates, coordinating efforts, and targeting funding toward policies and programmes to improve gender equality. While the gender equality MDGs have been somewhat successful, global progress has been uneven, and the MDGs failed to inspire transformative change with and for girls and women.

The gender equality goals and targets in the proposed Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, due to be adopted in September of this year by all governments, must aim to truly ‘make it happen’.

Achieving gender equality in the post-2015 agenda needs to meet the rights and needs of adolescent girls who face unique and significant challenges during the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Girl Declaration

Girls themselves – and the organisations that work with and for them – have outlined their vision for how this happens in the Girl Declaration*. Based on consultations with girls in 14 countries around the world, including Pakistan, the Girl Declaration has galvanised support and momentum across sectors on these critical issues.

It is my sincerest hope that empowering women and girls and ensuring gender equality will remain a key priority of the sustainable development agenda, and that the government of Pakistan will embrace this opportunity to not only ensure gender equality but to emerge as champions of girls’ and women’s rights.

The government has already proved its commitment to key girls’ and women’s equality issues. The landmark Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Bill 2013 was truly a turning point for girls’ and women’s rights in Pakistan, and we urge the government to facilitate the passage of similar bills in other provinces and on the federal level.

We at Plan International also commend the government of Pakistan’s commitment to empower girls and women and ensuring their rights as set forth in Pakistan Vision 2025*.

Building on these commitments, the government of Pakistan has the opportunity to show true vision and leadership as champions of adolescent girls’ needs and rights in the post-2015 agenda.

Achieving transformative change

We can achieve truly transformative change in the next 15 years by following the vision that girls themselves have laid out in the Girl Declaration: working together to ensure that girls can lead healthy lives, free from harmful practices like child marriage, safe from violence, completing at least 12 years of education, and participating in decision-making that affects their lives.

It all starts with girls, and this year we have a chance to make sure everyone knows and acts on this reality.

Let us not see this International Women’s Day as only one day in a year, but as a reminder and catalyst to ‘make it happen’ today and every day. A post-2015 agenda that protects the needs and rights of adolescent girls is the next step on the journey to achieve transformative change with and for all girls and women – in Pakistan and around the world.

Join Plan’s global Because I am a Girl campaign

* Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites

Mar 09, 2015 03:00 AM

The hidden weapon in the fight against Ebola

Posted by Nigel Chapman, Plan Chief Executive Officer |

Ahead  of a high level conference in Brussels on how to help the 3 Ebola-affected countries rebuild, Plan International CEO Nigel Chapman, who has just returned from visiting Ebola hotspots in Guinea and Sierra Leone, reveals why working with Sierra Leone’s secret societies could be the hidden weapon in combating Ebola.

2 March 2015: Ebola is proving a stubborn opponent in Sierra Leone and Guinea, with almost a hundred new cases reported last week.

Many of them arise from unsafe practices in communities whose members understandably fear the consequences of reporting new outbreaks - so they care for those infected themselves or after their death engage in unsafe burials.

Eradicating Ebola needs a big and final push to mobilise communities and their leaders to stop these long established practices. So who are those of influence in Sierra Leone who need to be enlisted in what everyone hopes is the final stages of the battle against Ebola?

Critical link to communities

To answer this question, we need to understand the role of secret societies in Sierra Leone and how reaching out to them provides a critical link into communities affected by Ebola.

It is estimated that between 70 - 85% of all Sierra Leoneans belong to a “secret society” - otherwise known as Friendly Societies. There are many societies in the country, but 4 principal ones dominate, one for each of the country’s 4 regions.

Each society is slightly different - some are for men, some for women, and some are mixed. But they all have 3 things in common: they are very hierarchical, each society has an elected head; that hierarchy means they have very clear lines of responsibility and what the head says happens, happens.

Created by ethnic and tribal communities, their rites, rituals and practices are not shared with others and when one is accepted into a society, it is a sign of responsibility, discipline and trustworthiness.

As the custodians of traditions and customs, ‘secret societies’ have been playing a major role in the Ebola outbreak - both in inadvertently fuelling the spread of the disease through performing traditional practices such as burial rituals, and latterly in helping to curb transmission by raising awareness and encouraging people to change the way they behave.

In short, enlisting 'secret societies’ and changing their attitudes is one of the key weapons to help put an end to this outbreak.

A bold Ebola initiative

Thus far, Plan International’s response to the crisis has focused on areas where there is unmet need. As part of our response we partnered a few months ago with the Office of H E Sia Nyama Koroma, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, on an Ebola Resistant Behaviour Change Initiative.

Simply put, the Office of the First Lady, with our support, has been working with Sierra Leone’s
powerful secret societies to encourage a change in the way they conduct their burial rituals as well as working with them to raise awareness about how to prevent Ebola.

This bold initiative is the first time ever that the secret societies have not only been brought together but also the first time they have worked towards a common goal. Secret society heads, chiefs, traditional and religious leaders have all been engaged and become champions of major behaviour change within society as a whole.

This work is having an effect. People have and are changing their behaviour and many are now
allowing specialist teams to safely remove and bury the victims of Ebola. This is helping to slow the spread of the virus and will in time help to halt it.

In time, this work with the secret societies may pave the way to help achieve sustainable, long-term changes in other areas, such as female genital mutilation and early child and forced marriage.

Research reveals Ebola impacts

Nigel meeting staff at a Plan-supported Ebola Community Care Unit in Sierra Leone

It’s only when you see the situation on the ground - as I did recently during my trip to Sierra Leone and Guinea - that you understand the scale of this disaster and the havoc it has wreaked across communities. The wide ranging short-term and long-term impacts of Ebola are huge.

These impacts are revealed in new research published by Plan International - Ebola: Beyond a health emergency - which highlights the multiple effects that Ebola has had on the welfare of children and families in West Africa.

The findings show that children’s development, and that of their families, is being seriously impacted by the loss of already precarious health services, education, community cohesion and basic needs such as food.

Many children have been placed at risk by a breakdown in the protective environment usually
provided by families and the wider community; those who have come into contact with Ebola and survived face stigmatisation. Orphans see the wider family safety net undermined because they have lost many close family members.

Crucial health services have been severely affected. Mothers and pregnant women are particularly heavily impacted, with 80% of mothers in Sierra Leone and 40% of mothers in Liberia who participated in the research reporting a lack of maternal health services since the outbreak of Ebola.

Winning the fight against Ebola is both a short-term and long-term battle. The damage Ebola has done in these fragile societies is significant and it won’t be a quick fix. But by taking a holistic view and working with communities to firstly finish the battle and then to help rebuild, donors, governments and other agencies can and must help these countries come back stronger.

Support Plan's Ebola response appeal

Read the 'Ebola: Beyond the health emergency' report

Mar 02, 2015 12:35 PM

Eliminating violence from our classrooms

Posted by Mark Pierce, Plan's Asia Regional Director |

Plan's new report shows that 7 out of 10 children experience violence in schools


2 March 2015: To most of us, the belief that our children should have to worry about violence at school is unthinkable. Parents should be able to trust that their kids’ schools are safe, and that an environment of learning should be devoid of violence.

Yet according to evidence being released this week from Plan International and the International Centre for Research on Women, violence is distressingly commonplace within schools in Asia.

The report, Promoting Equality and Safety in Schools, documents the disturbingly frequent incidents of violence that children experience in school, on the way to class, and at home.

Speaking to students in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, and Pakistan, the report has found that an alarming 7 out of 10 students have experienced violence at school. These statistics run as high as 84% in Indonesia. Even the bottom end of the scale – 43% in Pakistan  – is unacceptable.

This violence is often exacerbated by gender stereotypes. Too often, these gender roles are normalised in students’ minds at an early age, and so too is the erroneous notion that gender-based violence is an acceptable response.

The fact that schools are a place of learning, where children’s horizons are expected to be broadened and where we believe that educators are nurturing an environment for children to be world-class citizens, makes these findings all the more alarming.

Fear of speaking out

Part of the problem is that schools themselves are often not providing an environment free from violence, fear, and intimidation. In the case of Pakistan, nearly 50% of all reported cases of violence were committed by a member of staff.

Infrastructure is also a problem; in each of the 5 countries surveyed, school bathrooms are a common location for violence, including particularly high instances of sexual assault.

Even though many children feel unsafe, the report notes that they’re unlikely to report violence to parents or school staff for fear of punishment or retribution.

The more that children are exposed to violence, whether at home or at school, the more it becomes normalised in their minds. Increasingly, kids stop reporting incidents of violence because they stop seeing it as wrong; they come to think of it as a normal response or, at least, an inevitable part of their school day.  And kids who don’t regard violence as unusual or wrong are all the more likely to become perpetrators themselves.

This cycle needs to stop.

Gender and violence

'Promoting Equality and Safety in Schools' contains a suite of 24 recommendations, ranging from the introduction of curricula to change behaviour and attitudes regarding gender and violence, the establishment of services to enhance protection, and the enactment of policies and laws to prohibit and enforce regulations abolishing violence against children.

These recommendations also include proposals that teachers and school administrators must be well trained, equipped and supported to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in and around schools.

Counselling services need to be available at the school level, alongside comprehensive training and enforcement mechanisms. At the same time, infrastructure changes need to be made, like separate toilet facilities for girls and boys.

At the same time, any action needs to encompass a wider approach that dismantles the gender construction that unpins much of this violence, and which challenges the very idea of violence as an acceptable response, whether in the classroom or at home.

Every child's right to education

Every child has the right to a quality education, free from violence and the threat of violence. Plan is committed to working with educators, governments, parents, and students to enact the recommendations in this report.

At the moment, we are piloting a project in schools in Vietnam where through activities and teacher training, students and the school staff can begin to better understand the importance of gender equality.

We’re getting to work on making sure that parents, teachers, students, and legislators know that violence has no place in schools, or anywhere in a child’s life.

Read the Promoting Equality and Safety in Schools report

Learn about Plan's global work to end violence in schools

 

Mar 02, 2015 08:00 AM
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