This week Australia's State and Territory emergency managers will gather in Melbourne to work out how they can better meet the needs of children and young people affected by disasters like bushfires and floods. It may surprise that this is considered something new, but in my many years of experience in emergency management both in Australia and internationally the specific needs of children and young people are seldom considered as different from those of the general population.
My emergency management career started as a volunteer fire-fighter in outer Melbourne back in the nineties, and whilst we talked about how children can behave during a crisis, we never really considered what we needed to do to specifically cater for the needs of children when emergencies strike.
Many years later, working as a humanitarian for Save the Children, I have found myself responding to and supporting disasters from Pakistan to the Ivory Coast, and from Japan to New Zealand. One of the remarkable things I have noticed is that in countries where you would expect to have a less comprehensive approach to disaster management, there is often a more explicit concern for the needs of children in a time of crisis than there is in wealthier countries.
It is not that countries such as Japan, New Zealand or Australia care less for their children or young people, but rather that their better established systems for responding to crisis have, often, not factored in the specific needs of children and young people.
In places such as Pakistan there will often be a clear request to focus on the needs of children and young people, to establish places where they can be safe, and to get schools and educational establishments back up and running as quickly as possible. Often these are used as a platform for the delivery of other services to children and their families including healthcare, provision of shelter or protection from harm. More often than not providing services to children in emergencies is a higher priority for countries with less well developed responses to disasters, and we frequently find we are pushing on open doors.
Within this there are opportunities to study the countries where this occurs, but also there are genuine lessons we can learn from and adapt to our established approaches to disaster management. When Save the Children responded to the Victorian Bushfires in 2009, the 2010 Queensland Floods or the Japan Earthquake & Tsunami in 2011, we initially found that the answer to providing specific services to children would be – you guessed it – no. Yet after we had managed to gain a foothold to deliver services specifically targeting children, emergency managers began to see the benefits.
I have witnessed for myself the benefit of organisations such as Save the Children, normally viewed as delivering humanitarian aid to far flung countries, delivering services in wealthier countries such as Australia.
When I arrived in tsunami-affected Japan last year, and we established our first child-friendly space – safe spaces where children can play – in an evacuation centre on the outskirts of Sendai, you could see the positive difference in not just the children, but in everyone in that evacuation centre. The joy of seeing children playing and being children again lifted the spirits of not just their families but everyone around them as they dealt with their grief and loss. This was something we saw again in far-north Queensland following Cyclone Yasi, and in Brisbane following the floods last year.
These services are just one small component of a suite of services that can be provided to children and young people in a time of crisis, and the conference this week is a step in the right direction to ensure the needs of children and young people are catered for during a crisis.
Children and young people have a valuable role to play in the recovery and rehabilitation of their communities as well, and should be actively encouraged to participate in this process. In parts of Japan devastated by last year's quake and tsunami we have consulted with thousands of children and young people so that they can help influence the way in which their communities are rebuilt. This is the same approach that we use in less developed countries and one that we can use here in Australia as well.
As some of the nation's top experts in disaster management meet in Melbourne, I hope that we can commence a journey that will mark Australia out as a leader not just in our region, but globally, on ensuring that the needs of children and young people are properly addressed in disaster management plans in the same way as we already cater for the needs of the elderly, frail and disabled.
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