The call of duty: Putting children first

Whenever disaster strikes, people working with Save the Children save kids from being trafficked and cope with PTSD.

Published: 29th August 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th August 2016 08:28 AM   |  A+A-

Whenever disaster strikes, a group of people working with Save the Children manage to save kids from being trafficked and ensure they cope with PTSD and come out on top


Be it the bloodied, shocked face of Omran Daqneesh, the young Syrian boy from the conflict ridden section of Allepo (which went viral recently), the iconic photo by Kevin Carter of a vulture stalking an emaciated child in South Sudan or the image of a young naked boy pushing a stroller from the wrecks of his home after the Haiti earthquake in 2008, we are reminded by such photographs that whenever disaster strikes, children are inevitably at risk.

theb.jpgIn any disaster or man-made conflict, children are amongst the most vulnerable both physically and mentally. The younger they are, the harder it is for them to make sense of what is happening around them, thus preventing them from escaping risky situations or seeking help on their own. They are also more prone to malnutrition and water-borne diseases. Being separated from their families, most kids lose their identity, making rehabilitation all the more difficult. The biggest risk, however, is the post-traumatic stress. Psychologists believe that a child who has witnessed trauma first-hand is never the same again. And that is why a child-centered approach to disaster management is absolutely crucial.

That’s where organisations like Save the Children come in. One of the few global and national organisations that has been actively involved in rehabilitating children during every large disaster from the tsunami in 2004 to the Assam floods, they have saved the lives of thousands of displaced children, “Whenever a disaster strikes, we categorize it based on different factors like magnitude. Our support goes out to communities with children at the heart of it. Our Child Centered Humanitarian Response focuses on child protection, water sanitation and hygiene, health, education and creating Child Friendly spaces (CFS) for the care and psycho-emotional well-being of the children affected by the crisis,” says Ray Kancharla, National Humanitarian-DRR Manager, Save the Children. The CFS are shelters where children get to learn together, share their concerns and clarify doubts, while also getting involved in extra-curricular activities like sports and art. “During any disaster, people usually try to reach out to families and assume that the needs of children would automatically be taken care of. What we don’t realise is that children have specific needs,” says Sajit Menon, Deputy Director, Programmes. Till 2008, teams from the UK chapter of Save the Children had been flying in, mobilising local support and providing help, every time there was a calamity. The need was suddenly so acute that they needed to start an arm in India, based in New Delhi. Today, the organisation has 370 staff, several international volunteers and people from corporate companies, spread across 20 states within the country. Almost all of them are trained to handle kids and also stay safe during a natural calamity — the war field that they serve on, when called up for duty.

When a disaster strikes, the team goes in and instantly gets to work on the kids who are most prone to risks. Once things stabilise, they begin the risk assessment, which is done based on six pointers — families that are women-headed (lost husband), child-headed (lost both parents), families with pregnant or lactating mothers, families needing immediate health care, families with maximum number of children and families in extreme poverty, which are classified as most vulnerable. Once this is done, they get into consolidation mode. And that’s when they really begin to touch lives, “We conducted this assessment on 5000 families during the Tamil Nadu floods and selected beneficiaries. There was a 21-year-old woman whose mother was affected by HIV and was running the family through her tailoring job. She lost all her equipment during the flood and asked us if we could help her daughter complete her degree in physiotherapy. These are some of the rewards we get to see,” says Ipsita Das, Team Leader, TN Flood Response. 

The humanitarian response plan is divided into three phases. The first phase is called the immediate response (0-90 days). During the Tamil Nadu floods, this phase included providing relief items like shelter, houselhold utility kits, and hygiene kits. “In the immediate aftermath of disasters, children are displaced and are prone to trafficking. So we set up makeshift schools or Child Friendly Spaces, where children can spend the whole day. We teach them about the difference between good touch and bad touch and create awareness about other risks,” says Ipsita, and adds, “We also try to get information about dislocated children and establish linkages with local authorities and other NGOs.” This helps in finding kids who have gone missing and repatriate them.

The next phase is the Recovery phase (90-270 days) where they prepare the children to resume normal life. They also work on restoration of schools and making the facilities more child-friendly. The last phase is the rehabilitation phase which goes on for up to five years. During this period, they ensure continuity of education and other facilities. The organisation is now looking at comprehensive school safety programmes which will include safe learning facilities, co-ordinating with the government and the public works department and even make small investments.

The programme revolves around the National School Safety Project which according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is a demonstration project to ‘promote a culture of safety in schools by initiating policy level changes, capacity building of stake holders, education and communication activities, promoting non structural mitigation measures and demonstrating structural initiatives in a schools.’


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