Children are particularly vulnerable in situations of armed conflict or natural disasters, and they require special attention to ensure their protection and wellbeing.
Rights of the Child
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that children have the right to adequate food, water, shelter and education. They ought to be free from abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation or trafficking, and should be able to grow up in a safe and supportive environment.
Given their vulnerability, children require special support and attention during humanitarian crises to meet their basic needs and ensure that their rights are not violated. In situations of emergency their education may be interrupted, they may be separated from their families, they could be kidnapped and trafficked or recruited as child soldiers, raped, physically attacked or otherwise traumatized. There is a robust operational framework within which humanitarian agencies work to help protect and assist children in such situations.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly states that children have the right to protection from abuse, neglect and exploitation. Where children’s bodily integrity is at risk in crises with widespread and/or systematic violence, providing safe spaces in which children can play, learn and have adequate shelter is critical. Child-friendly spaces can be constructed in any available space, such as under trees, in a tent or in a courtyard. With support from families and community members who volunteer to lead activities, children have the opportunity to play, sing, and socialize with their peers — and to regain a sense of normalcy in difficult times. Child-friendly spaces also help keep children safe during the day, allowing parents to focus on finding support and services in the immediate aftermath of an emergency while rebuilding their lives.
The two Humanitarian Coalition agencies with a child-specific mandate, Plan Canada and Save the Children Canada, have endorsed the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action.
Nutrition & Health:
In developing countries where child malnutrition may already be a significant risk factor, even small-scale natural disasters have the potential to greatly worsen the health of affected children. Measles, diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, malaria and malnutrition are all major threats to the lives of children during a humanitarian crises, particularly those under the age of five; this makes emergency immunization, vitamin supplementation and therapeutic feeding centers a top priority.
Access to education restores a sense of normalcy and provides a safe and protected environment in which children can grow physically and intellectually. An example of inter-agency cooperation in the provision of education for children in emergencies is the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies.
During a period of crisis and when fleeing a disaster families can easily become separated. Deprived of parental care, separated children are often forced to head their own households, having to work to gain a livelihood in order to support themselves and their younger siblings. Reuniting children with their parents or caregivers, and providing services to support them during this process is a key component of humanitarian response. It is also critical to the protection of minors from exploitation or abduction in the midst of the chaos caused by a humanitarian crisis.