Sun, 06 Mar 2005

UNICEF, govt join hands to support Aceh's children

Eva C. Komandjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

When natural disaster strikes, children always suffer the most, as they are more vulnerable to the impacts and aftermath of a disaster than adults.

This has also been the case with the Boxing Day disaster that hit Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam and North Sumatra. Many children were killed, and those who survived had lost their parents, siblings or relatives, leaving them with grief and a sense that only a bleak future awaited them.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is working with the government, including the Ministry of Social Affairs and the State Minister of Women's Empowerment, to develop an active plan to rehabilitate these children.

UNICEF estimates that around 7,000 children have been separated from their families, and that the first step to rehabilitation is to reunite these children with their surviving family members.

"We have set up around 17 children's centers in Aceh, and we're planning to build three more," UNICEF spokeswoman Kendartati Subroto told The Jakarta Post.

The main purpose of these centers is to register displaced children and to reunite them with their parents or relatives. The center also provides a place for the children to play and learn in a safe environment.

"We've noticed that when a child is alone, they tend to be sadder and quieter than when they are with their friends or other children. That's why we're trying to create a place where these children can play with others and forget their sadness for a while," Kendartati said.

Through these centers, UNICEF has succeeded in reuniting 35 children with their families, although most are relatives like uncles and aunts. Currently, there are around 2,000 parents and adult relatives looking for their children through UNICEF children's centers.

"According to our data, there are around 150 unaccompanied children, meaning that none of their relatives have appeared yet to collect them," Kendartati said.

Since the government has banned adoption for orphaned Acehnese children, the remaining option is foster care.

Pudji Hastuti of the Directorate General of Social Rehabilitation at the Ministry of Social Affairs said these unaccompanied children would be taken care of by foster parents or by an orphanage, depending on what the children want.

"We have to listen to what they want, whether they want to live with a new family or at an orphanage," Pudji said.

She said Acehnese families would be given first priority as a potential foster family, as Acehnese orphans should not be severed from their culture.

Along with the government, one of UNICEF's main efforts is to ensure that the children go back to school, as making friends and playing at school could help them recover from trauma and grief.

"We're currently providing enough back-to-school school kits, including textbooks, for around 17,600 students in Aceh. We're also recruiting 3,000 teachers for the same purpose," Kendartati said.

Child survivors of the tsunami face an uphill climb toward recovery and rehabilitation, because aside from losing their family, they must survive the ensuing trauma as well.

"We're also providing psychosocial support for these children to help them handle their trauma. There are 47 psychologists on duty at our centers to provide counseling," Kendartati said.

UNICEF's psychosocial support services assist child survivors and their surviving families to focus on strengthening their resilience and establishing support networks.

While good mental health is important, physical health is equally important for children, especially since many diseases emerged after the disaster.

"We're vaccinating the children for measles ... from 6-month- olds to 15-year-olds," Kendartati said.

Managing millions in relief aid for tsunami victims, especially children, UNICEF is expanding its efforts to build water and sanitation systems.

"Although it does not focus directly on children, this helps them in the end since good sanitation leads to good health. We're helping the local administration to build latrines in schools and makeshift shelters," Kendartati said.

Fortunately, even with so many projects on the ground, no major obstacles stand in UNICEF's way.

"Our earlier challenges were mainly related to transporting goods from one place to another, since most areas were isolated and difficult to reach. But that was weeks ago, and now things are much better," Kendartati said.

The road to Aceh's reconstruction will be a long one, and UNICEF and the government intend to be on hand as the children adjust to their new lives.

"The children's centers will remain in Aceh as long as they're needed to help the rehabilitation and the reconstruction process," Kendartati said.