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

Thousands of displaced children at risk in Cameroon

Posted by Berenger Berehoudougou, Plan's West Africa disaster risk management manager |

Berenger BerehoudougouAttacks by Boko Haram fighters are forcing thousands of children and their families to seek refuge in the Far North region of Cameroon where they are struggling to survive, blogs Berenger Berehoudougou, Plan's West Africa disaster risk management manager.

Plan International is working to provide vital support to affected families – including water and sanitation, education and child protection.

10 April 2105: The lives of thousands of children and their families are at risk in the Far North region of Cameroon. This is the story of Almara, who fled her village and now lives in a settlement camp.

"They came at night, on motorbikes, and started shooting and killing people, taking our livestock and belongings. They burnt everything. We ran away in the night to save our lives.  The only things I took from my house were a map and one single cooking pot. I left behind all my jewellery, and you know how important these are for a Fulani women like me," she whispered.

I met Almara in one of the settlements for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Far North region of Cameroon earlier this month. Her pastoralist village situated alongside the Nigerian border had been attacked 3 months back by Boko Haram insurgents.

Escaping violence

Displaced people in settlement camp, Far North Cameroon

A young displaced family in a settlement camp in Cameroon

During the attack, Almara and her 7 children witnessed very violent scenes. Her husband's uncle was killed in front of them, and she saw a pregnant woman being thrown into the fire and many other people killed, including men, children and women.

Almara confessed she couldn't sleep and had constant nightmares - her children still have nightmares and frequently shout and cry at nights.

"My children are able to play with other children in the settlement but when they see a foreigner, they cry and run away. Even now, there is a woman in our settlement who runs and hides in the neighbouring bush whenever she hears the sound of a motorcycle,'' she added.

Almara escaped with few people from her village. "We walked 20 days in the bush from Mozoko circle to this place. It was a painful journey, full of fear, hunger and thirst," she said.

"We sold some of our livestock to local communities to buy food. Having drinking water was a bigger challenge. At times, we would stay the whole day long without any drop of water and most of our livestock would collapse on the way," said Allasane, Almara's father-in-law.

When Almara and her family arrived in Golmavi circle, they were welcomed by the local communities who shared with them the little resources they had, endangering their own limited coping capacities.

"We seem to be forgotten"

So far, the IDPs say they have received very limited support from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

"They [NGOs] came to provide some food and tarpaulin 2 months ago. We seem to be forgotten. We struggle to find drinking water for not only ourselves but also for the little livestock we have. The animals drink once a day by turn to allow the wells to recharge. Animals are all that we have to survive. They provide us with milk to feed our children,' said Amadou, the leader of Almara's settlement, which hosts 9 families of about 79 people.

In this Sahelian part of Cameroon, resource scarcity is part of daily life: water points are rare and crowded, access to pasture lands is crucial, food stock and prices are volatile. There is a risk that conflicts arise if nothing is done urgently to help the IDPs and host communities cope with this unusual burden on a fragile environment.

Hunger and thirst

The forthcoming rainy season will make the situation worse as flash floods are common in this area. Road access will be much more complicated and cases of malaria and waterborne diseases are predictable. Despite the security situation, if the few humanitarian actors present in the Far North region of Cameroon are not given the means to act quickly, lives of thousands of children and their families are at risk.

Like Almara and her family, there are about 96,042 internally displaced people* affected by the Boko Haram insurrection, who are dispersed in a region as big as Belgium and Luxembourg together. They live in small temporary settlements in the suburb of isolated villages. All of them are witnesses or survivors of violence and are in desperate need of support. Humanitarian assistance hardly reaches them. Small settlements difficult to locate and lack of funding hamper the international NGOs to adequately address their needs.

Poor road conditions and the lack of funding, makes IDPs one of the priority groups to address for Plan International, as it is estimated that around 60% of them are school going age children.

In Almara's community alone, 40 children do not attend school, the nearest school being too far. Children suffer hunger and thirst and miss the basics under their temporary straw shelters with roof built with fine tarpaulin.

Find out more about Plan’s work in Cameroon

*Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites

Apr 10, 2015 04:45 PM

Renewed efforts needed to combat Ebola

Posted by Paolo Lubrano, Plan’s Emergency Response Manager |

Plan is still working to provide and promote hand washing points to help stop infection

With a surge in new Ebola cases and the rainy season fast approaching, this is the time for a renewed effort to fight Ebola, blogs Paolo Lubrano, Plan International’s Emergency Response Manager.


7 April 2015, World Health Day: Over the past few weeks there has been a moderate increase of new cases of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Far from the dramatic figures of late 2014, but certainly not close to the “zero cases” target that the 3 countries hoped to achieve a few weeks ago.

It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons: I just returned from Conakry, where about 57 new cases were confirmed this week (49 the past week, an increase of over 10%) and a number of other cases were under observation, and I noticed there that to some extent the preventive measures were starting to be less strict than before.

Hand washing is always compulsory in all public places, offices, schools, but it was somehow perceived as an unnecessary measure since Ebola cases were dropping. Probably households lowered their guard as well. Plan and other international agencies have been intensely disseminating preventive messages and still work on public awareness - I wonder how much prevention is really becoming a permanent habit for everyone.

New urban surge

This new moderate surge of new cases has different features: it seems to be more “urban” than before – the new cases detected in Guinea were in most part located in the surroundings of Conakry, a new case in Liberia was detected in Montserrado, not too far from Monrovia.

The modalities of infection are still the same, with unsafe burials being still one of the major causes, but there’s also an increased number of Ebola cases diagnosed post-mortem. This might possibly be due to decreased attention to the symptoms, and it has significant consequences meaning the undiagnosed bodies are buried with traditional ceremony, where possibilities of infections are extremely high.

In addition, there is evidence of at least one case of infection through sexual contacts with a survivor of Ebola. Medical evidence shows that the virus survives in body fluids for some weeks after the illness is declared healed.

Burial traditions still strong

In Guinea, unsafe burials are still being practiced. While certainly less cases have been observed and reported, it is clear that local traditions are still relatively strong, both in urban and rural settings.

The number of cases in Guinea is growing again, at a time when local authorities, international donors and agencies are looking at the recovery phase. But is the emergency really over?

On 28 March the President of Guinea Alhpa Conde declared 45 days of special increased prevention measures, including screening, road-posts to check cars - especially taxi drivers, often transporting patients and increased hygiene measure in schools and hospitals. Just a few days ago, I was travelling through Conakry, and I noticed several police cars checking drivers on the main road to the airport.

I visited Liberia about 2 weeks ago. The high hopes to reach 42 days with no new cases were dashed when a new case was identified not far from Monrovia on the 25th day. Again, urban setting, physical contacts, lower attention to prevention, and back to square one.

This is really the time where social mobilisation and preparedness for possible new cases are absolutely critical.

Rainy season fear

The rainy season is approaching: in some areas of Liberia and Guinea rains have started already, and by May heavy rains will be recorded, especially in Liberia. Roads will be flooded, it will be difficult to reach hospital and clinics, electricity will not be available for long periods, and water infrastructure - including sewage, will be disrupted. In Liberia, some of the counties where Plan is working will not be reachable by car anymore. The already weakened health systems in the affected countries will be put to further stress which they have little capacity to withstand.

This is the time for a renewed effort to prevent a new disaster: increased hygiene measures, increased screening, and increased social mobilisation are the key factors in putting forward a robust response to this new surge.

Please support Plan’s emergency Ebola response

Apr 07, 2015 03:30 PM

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.

Support Plan's Ebola response

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

Join Plan’s Because I am a Girl campaign

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
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