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Addressing children’s vulnerabilities in humanitarian situations

While this day serves to remind us of the importance of the rights of all children, everywhere, current humanitarian crises are aggravating children and adolescents’ vulnerabilities – preventing them from thriving in their first and second decades of life.

According to UNICEF, in 2016, there were 535 million children living in countries affected by conflict, natural disasters, epidemics and other emergencies worldwide. Humanitarian crises have affected children to such a great extent that there has been a five-fold increasein the number of unaccompanied and separated children from 2010-11 to 2015-16 owing to various crises. It is estimated that the largest number of child migrants are in Asia. So how does a country like Nepal, which has recently borne the brunt of significant natural disasters, respond to children and adolescents’ specific needs and vulnerabilities?

Natural disasters in Nepal: noteworthy efforts tailored to the needs of adolescents

Nepal has faced two major disasters in recent times, with 2015 earthquake claiming almost 9000 lives, and the 2017 floods in the Southern plains resulting in displacement of about 18,000 families. As many as 940,000 children were directly affected by the earthquake. While disasters affect all community members, adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to increased incidents of sexual and physical violence, child marriage, exploitation, and trafficking. As per the National Human Rights Commission report, there was a 15 per cent increase in  trafficking cases in Nepal after the earthquake.

Some noteworthy relief and recovery efforts have been made in Nepal, especially through development organisations providing immediate support in the aftermath of the recent floods and the 2015 earthquake.

UNFPA has been instrumental in terms of providing various adolescent specific services after the earthquake and during the recent floods. As part of its recent response to the floods, UNFPA, with the support from Australian Government, provided ‘dignity kits’ to adolescent girls and women in 11 most affected districts, containing much needed hygiene supplies, extra clothes, sanitary napkins, flashlights and whistles. After the earthquake, UNFPA opened mobile reproductive health camps with ‘adolescent-friendly corners’ promoting sexual and reproductive health by providing access to information, commodities and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. Overall, more than 17000 adolescents benefitted from 132 mobile camps.

In earthquake-affected areas, Plan International Nepal is operating adolescent friendly spaces where girls can access their right to protection and openly discuss matters (through a volunteer facilitator) considered as taboo within families such as sexual health, menstruation and sexually transmitted infections. The organisation aims to provide support to about 11,000 adolescent girls and boys in four quake-affected districts: Dolakha, Sindhupalchowk, Makwanpur and Sindhuli.

Oxfam Nepal, with the support of local organisations, constructed girl-friendly toilets in quake-affected schools which had proper lighting, lockable doors, storage facilities for sanitary napkins and separate area for disposal of used napkins, water for cleaning and hand-washing. The organisation reported that these toilets benefitted adolescent girls a great deal as previously when the girls had their periods, they either used to go home or use a single napkin for the whole day. Oxfam was able to construct more than 18,000 toilets in seven quake-affected districts with 27 toilets constructed in schools especially for menstrual hygiene management.

Eyeing for Sustainability

While these are excellent efforts from the humanitarian sector to address the specific needs of adolescent girls, the responsive nature of these interventions limits the possibility of sustained resilience to emergency and crisis situations. Institutionalisation, ownership and sustainability of such interventions, through government efforts with financial and technical support from the development organisations, could be a more sustainable approach.

The five-year (2016-2020) Post-Disaster Recovery Framework developed by National Planning Commission highlights the need for child and adolescent friendly spaces in its strategic recovery objective:

Every effort will be made to ensure that infrastructure, especially social infrastructure, is reconstructed in a disaster-resilient manner. All learning facilities are to be disaster-resilient, so as to provide safe learning spaces for children, adolescents and youth, in which they can receive a quality education. This entails safe site selection, compliance with building codes, disaster resilient designs, retrofitting, construction supervision and quality control.

While this is a positive policy statement, resilience planning can only be effective through design and implementation of recovery interventions, specifically tailoring to the needs of the population sub-categories such as adolescent girls.

Role of Evidence

Humanitarian agencies such as UN and the INGOs have increasingly realised the importance of evidence to inform what sorts of interventions work for specific target groups such as adolescent girls. Furthermore, sharing success (and also failure) stories on what does and doesn’t work is critical to understand what sorts of programmes are effective, catalytic and scalable, particularly in light of attaining the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

As a nine-year programme, GAGE is ideally placed to examine the effects of different interventions and intervention bundles, of varying time and intensity, to explore what works for adolescent girls, especially those who are ‘hard to reach’ or most vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters and conflict.

Note: the programmes referenced in this blog are examples of post-disaster programming and relief efforts aimed at adolescent girls. GAGE has not evaluated these programmes as part of its research and this commentary should not be seen as endorsement of ‘what works’.