31 October 2011

Child-friendly spaces: comfort zones for children affected by floods

A girl hangs her drawing at the child-friendly space in Ayutthaya City Hall. Child-friendly spaces are designed to serve as safe and protective places for children in times of emergency. © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Piyanunt

By Nattha Keenapan

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – Kanitha Kaicharit, 10, spends more than an hour each day travelling to Ayutthaya City Hall with her grandmother in order to get the free food and water being distributed to flood-affected families. After arriving, her grandmother rushes to the crowded food distribution tent, but Kanitha’s destination is a livelier area filled with laughing and playing children, all of whom are  affected by the floods.
“I like coming here because I can sing, dance and do some paintings,” said Kanitha, who has been living on the second floor of her house with eight other relatives for more than two weeks. “The water level at my house is about three metres high and the ground floor is entirely flooded. Staying home all day long stresses me out.”

Kanitha and her family are among the nearly 2.1 million people currently affected by Thailand’s worst flooding in 50 years. About a fifth of the country is inundated and more than 370 people, including 61 children – most of them are boys aged 12-17 -- have died due to the floods.

At Ayutthaya City Hall, where hundreds of flood- affected families  have taken shelter, one corner has been designated as a  “child-friendly space”(CFS), which is designed to serve as a safe and protective place for children in times of emergency. The CFS provides children with a variety of learning and play activities such as arts, crafts, singing and dancing that can help alleviate the fear and stress they feel from the experience of being displaced by floods.

“Most children are stranded in houses surrounded by water, and there is no space or activities for them at all,” said Victoria Juat, UNICEF Thailand’s Chief of Child Protection. “Child-friendly spaces serve as a safe place where children can learn and play. It is part of the psychosocial support that they need, for these activities can help the children get over some of the terrible things they have seen and been through during the past weeks.”

UNICEF has earmarked an initial Baht 3 million ($100,000) to establishing 40 child-friendly spaces at temporary shelters with large child populations. The project is being carried out in collaboration with Save the Children, the Foundation for Child Development, the Centre for the Protection of Child Rights and other local non-government organizations (NGOs).

Natthinee Wichaiwattana, a social worker from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) in charge of the child-friendly space at Ayutthaya City Hall, said the space has become a “comfort zone” for children. Each day about 30 children aged 3-15 years old come to learn and play while their parents look for free food and clothes or attend vocation training courses offered at the centre.

“All my toys were swept away by the water,” said Seen, a 6-year-old girl who has been living with her parents in a small tent at Ayutthaya City Hall for more than a week. “But this place is fun. I like playing with the jigsaws.”

Along with the many other activities offered to children at the child-friendly space in Ayutthaya City Hall, they are asked to write down their feelings about the floods. Some of them expressed sadness about their houses being damaged by floodwaters, while many wrote about the difficulties of living at the temporary shelters. Despite their fear of the floodwaters, nearly all of them wanted to return home.

“I don’t want the world to be flooded by water” wrote Pae, an eight-year-old boy from Nakorn Sawan Province, who has been living with his parents at Ayutthaya City Hall for a few weeks. “My house is now covered by floodwater, so I had to sleep on the street where there are a lot of mosquitoes.” writes another child.

With UNICEF support, staff from the MSDHS and NGOs working at the child-friendly spaces are trained to help identify children suffering from severe stress for follow up psychosocial counselling by social workers. They are also trained on how to better protect children in evacuation centres through improved safety measures, registration processes and prevention of separation, abuse and exploitation.

Posters and leaflets bearing a variety of child protection messages will be distributed and posted at the evacuation centres as part of the UNICEF/Save the Children project.

“Children are extremely vulnerable during the floods,” said UNICEF’s Juat. “Setting up child-friendly spaces during an emergency like this can help focus the attention of adults on the special care and protection needed for children.”

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