Sun, 06 Mar 2005

Ensuring the future of 'tsunami children'

Bambang Nurbianto, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones to make a better day
so let's start giving

Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote the 1985 charity theme song We Are The World to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims, including thousands of children.

The inclusion of children in the lyrics is not by chance: The composers were inviting all people of the world to pay special attention to the fate of children, who were most affected by the disaster in the African country.

Today, the song is played at many charity events to raise funds for earthquake and tsunami victims in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, including around 40,000 children who were orphaned.

Indonesia is not alone in carrying out long-term efforts to protect the interests of tsunami children, and the world is also focusing on how to ease their suffering and grief.

According to chairman Seto Mulyadi of the National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak), particular attention to children is greatly needed because the impacts of such a horrific disaster can leave permanent psychological scars.

"What happens in childhood will shape their social outlook, and affect what roles they will play in future. For example, a child who grows up in times of war will tend to solve problems with violence," Seto told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview.

Therefore, he urged that the government work with utmost haste on how to help the children, including orphans, because the state is legally and morally responsible for their upbringing and development until they become independent citizens.

In its proposal on the protection of Acehnese and North Sumatra children, Komnas Anak recommends four target actions that require immediate attention: establishing emergency policies, prioritizing protection, facilitating education and ensuring health care.

Emergency policies should comprise a comprehensive effort to coordinate all domestic and international humanitarian assistance to ensure that the children's basic needs -- like food, clothing and shelter -- are fulfilled.

This should also entail the establishment of an information center about those children who need immediate help. The center is also needed to maintain accountability of all programs.

The second target covers short- and long-term efforts in child protection. Its activities include effort to procure humanitarian assistance, provide therapy and counseling, arrange reunification and possibly locate foster parents.

According to Seto, counseling is an important component of child protection, because its success would make a positive contribution to the children's psychological and emotional development.

Therefore, he added, Komnas Anak was paying serious attention to providing therapy and counseling. Apart from providing therapeutic services at many temporary shelters, the organization also carries out training programs for therapy specialists to guarantee the continuity of this program.

"Therapy helps children to forget their traumatic experiences temporarily, so that they are not haunted by nightmares of when they were separated from their parents and relatives," Seto said.

The reunification program is a concerted effort to help children find their surviving relatives, as there is a good possibility that their parents or relatives survived the disaster, but are living at different shelters.

Locating foster parents for possible adoption is another crucial component in helping children reclaim some normalcy in their lives.

Seto, however, stressed that adoption was a sensitive issue for Acehnese, because the concept does not exist in Aceh and under Islam, the dominant religion there, also does not permit it.

According to Law No. 23/2002 on child protection, foster parents should be adherents of the same religion as the potential adoptees.

"For the time being, Komnas Anak does not recommend adoption for Acehnese children, because it touches upon a very sensitive issue. Acehnese public figures are also prohibiting outsiders from adopting Acehnese children," he added.

But adoption is not impossible in the future, if it is carried out selectively and individually. Caution and care in this process is also crucial in preventing child trafficking, which occurred as isolated incidents in Aceh days after the disaster, he added.

Seto identifies the government as the single party most responsible for the fate of all orphans in the two provinces. As such, it must also take responsibility over the provision of permanent shelters like orphanages, continuous education and guaranteed health care.

Citing the law on child protection, Seto said the government was responsible for the education of orphans up to senior high school or until they reach their 18th birthday.

Meanwhile, in children's health care, the government must guarantee nutritious food and drinking water, clothing as well as and sanitation at shelters.

Seto, however, stressed that the initial steps in implementing child protection, particularly therapy and counseling, were vital to the success of subsequent programs.

"In the initial stage, we must convince Acehnese orphans that they are not alone, that everyone cares about their fate and that they can go on with their lives like other children," Seto said, adding that the children needed to forget their bitter experiences in order to move on and have a chance at becoming productive members of society.