Janis Ridsdel is the Global Child Protection in Emergencies Specialist for Plan International. Since joining Plan in September 2011, Janis has supported the development of Plan’s work in child protection in emergencies at a global level, as well as conducting field missions to emergencies in several Plan countries around the world.
Deep in the Compostela Valley, amid storm-flattened homes, the streets are lined with children begging for food, money and anything a passer-by can spare. The image of one girl, aged about ten, holding out a small plastic basin with her younger brothers jumping around her knees expectantly, sticks in my mind. She represents a second, less visual storm brewing on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao.
To provide this girl with basic food and shelter – although an urgent necessity – is not enough. In order for her and her brothers to go back to school and to continue developing healthily, they need psychosocial support to recover from this experience, and to feel safe and normal again.
Further down the road, government workers are busy pouring rice into plastic bags a week on from Typhoon Bopha. They tell us they manage to distribute only three days’ worth of food to survivors – meaning many children and their families are unsure where their next meal will come from. Blocked roads and collapsed bridges make some of the more remote areas unreachable - we can only guess at the suffering experienced there.
Nearly 780,000 villagers are now living in the ruins of their homes or in evacuation centres – more than the population of Leeds. The current level of assistance is nothing compared to the needs despite scores of Filipino citizens volunteering their time and personal resources, adding to the response by government, UN and non-governmental agencies.
Many might understandably forget that survivors are more than just mouths to feed and bodies to house. With such a daunting task ahead, emergency workers speak of ‘numbers affected’ and of the need to prioritise ‘basic services’ above everything else. While there can be no argument that people need food, shelter, water and sanitation services and healthcare as soon as possible, we must also take heed of the lessons learned from emergencies such as the Haiti earthquake of 2010. Then, neglect of key issues like sexual violence and human trafficking resulted in enormous gaps in prevention and response services. In the first 150 days after the quake, 250 rape cases of women and girls were reported in several camps. And we must remember that most cases of sexual violence go unreported, as survivors are afraid of being stigmatised, or put at further harm by the perpetrators.
While of course the Philippines and Typhoon Bopha are a world away from the Haiti earthquake, even in ‘normal’ times, one in ten girls and women (aged 15 – 49) are victims of sexual violence. Younger girls and boys are also at risk. The dangers of the combination of pre-existing gender inequalities and the extreme vulnerability resulting from the typhoon, makes the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse of girls and boys affected by the typhoon undeniable. To make matters worse, the island of Mindanao is rife with human trafficking, especially of young girls and women. In last year’s typhoon in western Mindanao, it was estimated that trafficking increased by at least 10 per cent.
The young girl not only needs to be off the roads, she needs to have a community around her that can keep out dangerous people looking to harm her, and that can identify and bring to justice those who do. In order for this girl to have a future, we must act on issues such as sexual violence, exploitation, and trafficking – just as we do on food and shelter. Otherwise, we will realise the value of the adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ only at the expense of hundreds of children’s futures.