Living by their wits

The first anniversary of the south Asian tsunami has just passed, and work continues to rebuild the lives of those affected by the devastating wave – as it does in Pakistan, Iran and other areas that have  suffered natural disasters in recent times.

But there is one area of work that relief agencies have perhaps overlooked over the years – child protection. Wherever there is a natural disaster or conflict, thousands of children face a multitude of threats. These can include forced recruitment into armed forces, separation from families which puts them at risk of abuse or exploitation, and forced displacement with their families. Then there are the more familiar needs, food and shelter.

To fill this gap Save the Children set up a year-long pilot child protection trainee scheme. It started last July and a second cycle is due to start in September.

Katy Barnett, Save the Children’s emergencies adviser with responsibility for running the scheme, says: “Every time there is a breaking emergency we scramble around for the right people. It’s a bit ad hoc how we recruit and develop in this field. In Darfur, Sudan, it was months before we had a child protection person in place and that is where children are routinely attacked, maimed and forcibly displaced.”

There were 800 applicants for seven places with backgrounds including masters degrees in social work or humanitarian issues, development studies and human rights. Successful candidates included a teacher and a social worker; and a couple of internal candidates, including Alyson Eynon.

A training workshop was followed with a six-month placement mentored by a coach. The first placements were to Aceh in Indonesia, which was worst hit by the tsunami, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, where Save the Children engages only in low-key work to avoid expulsion from the country. Another workshop will follow the placements to prepare the trainees for their second tour of duty.

Historically, child protection in emergencies has been a poorly defined area so  staff need a range of skills.

Barnett says: “It’s a huge field that requires someone who has skills such as situation analysis, languages, an understanding of political and social dynamics, an understanding of children and a commitment to their participation. They have to be a good manager too, and be able to write well because it’s no good having all these skills if they can’t communicate to decision-makers in different countries. It can be difficult to find people like this when resources are stretched and there’s not much time.

“They need to be superheroes. They have to learn on the job. They live with uncertainty and have to improvise and make decisions on the basis of little information.”

One lesson learned in the first six months is that flexibility is crucial. Two trainees were pulled from their placements and moved to Pakistan after the earthquake in October, which tested their resilience and adaptability.

There is no disputing that the job is demanding and two trainees have left the scheme. Barnett is not surprised: “It’s just very tough. The living conditions are tough, you may not be clear who your manager is, no one is necessarily supporting you because everyone has huge workloads of their own, you have to handle the media, report back to London, make sure what is being done is in the best interests of the children. And you have to learn to manage the fact that things will go wrong and that can be quite scary.”

One of the trainees who resigned was a social worker. “She went from having clear objectives and a portfolio of cases where she could affect the changes, follow up and complete the case and report to her superior. It’s quite a comfortable way of working, although the issues she was dealing with were horrendous. But being able to address them so concretely is very different from knowing there is abuse and violence that you can’t do anything about except report.

“She’d been through an exhausting time and, having seen how intense the work was, decided it wasn’t for her and wanted to continue being a social worker in the UK. She said we should be careful if we were recruiting another social worker and make sure they are ready to take the leap.”

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