For two weeks in early August, six-year-old M had a recurring nightmare—one which featured the thunderous, ear-splitting roar of stones crashing down. Often, her mother would find her drenched in sweat and whimpering in her sleep.

It is only last week that she learnt to articulate her fears. M didn’t know the term “landslide" back then but could draw in detail the event that took away her home and her dog, Golu. It was with the help of art therapy, counselling and peer-to-peer sharing that the six-year-old was able to express herself and create a personal portrait of the torrential rains that have hit Kerala this year.

She is one of the many children currently taking refuge in flood relief camps across the state. M and her family are from the Meppadi region of Wayanad, which has one of the highest densities of flood-stricken people living in camps—as of 12 August, 35,000 people had sought shelter in 212 relief camps, according to an official release. Across Kerala, 287,000 people are in relief camps. “In any disaster, kids comprise 40% of the affected population. It could go up to 60% if the flood has happened in an urban area," says Vikas Gora, general manager (south), Save the Children, a non-governmental organization.

The grey and the gloom of the camps is, however, punctuated by streaks of colour and warmth, in the form of safe spaces for children. Individuals, institutions and collectives continue to create small recreation centres, makeshift libraries, learning spaces and counselling areas to help children cope.

In any natural disaster, be it an earthquake or floods, children are the most vulnerable—mentally and physically. According to a 2018 study in the European Journal Of Psychotraumatology, it is estimated that nearly 175 million children will be affected every year by natural disasters attributed to climate change. The study adds that the mental consequences have been documented not only in the rates of post-traumatic stress symptoms but also in the occurrence of depression and other mental health problems. “These are normal reactions by a child to an abnormal situation. They can’t be termed mental disorders and have to be handled with a different kind of sensitivity," says Kasi Sekar from the department of psychiatric social work at Bengaluru’s Nimhans, whose team of volunteers has been working in the flood-hit areas of Karnataka and Kerala.

Before creating a “safe space" for children, it is important to map out the needs of the various age groups. “During such disasters, pregnant women tend to have untimely births. Those infants need to be taken care of immediately due to exposure to the elements," says Dr Sekar.

For children aged up to 5, home is synonymous with family. When the home is lost, their sense of security comes crashing down. “They develop a clinging syndrome as they want to be attached to the father and mother all the time. Then you have kids in the age group of 6-12, whose routine has gotten disturbed," says Dr Sekar. For them, every little loss—from the flower that a friend gave to a note that the teacher wrote—has a deep impact. “The loss of a beloved chicken or cat is a major loss for them. Then come the adolescents, who bottle up their feelings. They think they have control over the situation but actually don’t," he says.

At relief centres, it is important to look at the safety of adolescents, and their privacy as well, especially when it comes to girls. “They develop feelings of being physically exposed. These are issues that never get talked about," says Dr Sekar.

Teams from Nimhans and Save the Children, in partnership with a women’s community collective called Kudumbashree—which has around five million women from the marginalized sections of Kerala’s society—have been working in individual capacities to create child-safe places in relief camps.

Child-Friendly Spaces (or CFS, also known as Temporary Respite Care) by Save the Children is a national standard of care in domestic emergency response, to ensure children are safe in shelters, assistance centres and other locations where families congregate during disasters. It is a designated area where children can play, socialize and begin to recover during emergencies. “Over the past few years of experience in humanitarian response, we have seen the necessity of running CFS for immediate and long-term care and protection of children. This also safeguards them from abuse and any form of exploitation, which could go unchecked in such times," says Bidisha Pillai, chief executive officer, Save the Children.

Such spaces could be located in a school campus, junior college, or in the relief camp itself, and can be monitored easily. “In Wayanad, 200-odd landslides have taken place. Even in such an unsafe scenario, one can look at open areas, where the silt and rubble will not reach. One needs to maintain that critical eye that even if a landslide takes place, there is scope to run out. So the child-friendly space shouldn’t be located in too closed a space where children can get trapped. But, at the same time, it should keep them safe from wild animals and snakes," says Gora.

Children in these spaces have been spending their time making shapes with dough, drawing, or having “circle time" to share their feelings. “We have been focusing on how they survived rather than what the disaster is. It is important to have a positive connotation even in a negative situation," says Gora. Children, usually in the age group of 6-12, come in with questions like: “Will this happen to me again?" “What happened to my friend who lived across the hill?"

“One of the stories that was repeated by a child in camp this year was: ‘My friend is handicapped. He can’t run. I am frightened he hasn’t survived,’" says Gora. The counsellors use play and storytelling as tools, engaging in step-by-step therapy.

A ‘bala’ corner created by Kudumbashree in Wayanad.
A ‘bala’ corner created by Kudumbashree in Wayanad. (Photo: Kudumbashree)

Kudumbashree has 105,000 members in Wayanad. The women have started balasabhas (children’s collectives) for children in the age group of 5-18 across Kerala. “Today, we have 1,600 balasabha units in Wayanad itself. And during the floods too, we set up bala corners in the camps, where we are doing cultural programmes, art and craft. Small learning groups are created for experimental and systematic learning," says Sajitha P., the mission head for Wayanad district.

In flood-affected areas across the country, citizen groups have been pitching in. For instance, in Maharashtra, the Ugam Foundation, registered in Thane and run by 15 young professionals, aged 32-35, has been sending out materials to flood-stricken Sangli. “Among other things, we have sent 10,000 sanitary pads for adolescent girls, 2,000-plus diapers, medicines and milk powder," says Prashant Nikam, an IT professional.

In Kerala, the Do For Others Eunnathi Foundation, a team of 300 volunteers led by entrepreneur Bindu Sathyajith, took care of the St Joseph Camp in Meppadi — the worst-hit area in Wayanad district in 2018. Last year, the team deployed 72 bio-toilets within 72 hours at another camp in Kerala’s Kuttanad region—a record according to the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority. “This year, we are carrying out waste management. And are giving kitchen kits, provisions and clothing to those who have lost land in Kuttumala in Wayanad," says Sathyajith, who spoke to Lounge last week while helping out at the camp in Wayanad.

During the 2018 floods, she was deeply impacted by the testimonies of adolescents about their fear of drowning while waiting to be rescued. “Also, a young girl in the camp was looking in despair for a sanitary pad, but none was to be found. When we came with the materials and offered her a napkin, she had tears of gratitude. We are focusing a lot on the needs of adolescent girls this time," she says.

Organizations such as Thiruvananthapuram-based 360 Degree—which focuses on social entrepreneurship among youth and is led by Gautham Ravindran—have been working on libraries damaged by the floods. “A lot of schools are still affected by last year’s floods. We are working on two libraries in Alappuzha and have completed one in Ernakulam," says Ravindran. It was while ferrying relief material during the 2018 floods that he realized there were hardly any books for children to go back to after they left the camps, since most of the libraries had been washed away. “The idea is to create and restore a library every month," he says.

Meanwhile, at the child-safe spaces in relief camps, the Nimhans and Save the Children teams are training community members to keep vigil against traffickers.

“In the aftermath, the impact is mostly on the children, resulting in school drop-out, chances of being trafficked and early distress marriages that rob childhoods. Community and family counselling, public awareness and vigil is required to deter this and a collaborative action by the government, civil society and media is of paramount importance," says Gora.

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