Sunday, February 01, 2009

Philippines: An increasing number of children on conflict-stricken Mindanao Island are suffering from stress after more than five months of fighting

Rohaimen Kedto says he is now afraid to go to school

An increasing number of children on conflict-stricken Mindanao Island are suffering from stress after more than five months of fighting between government forces and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The southern, mineral-rich island has witnessed an upsurge in fighting following the collapse of a peace accord in August.

"I'm afraid. I don't want to go to school," Rohaimen Kedto, 8, said from his desk at the Sambulawan Elementary School, about 60km north of Cotabato city in North Cotabato Province.

"He's particularly afraid if he sees a stranger," said Parida Campaniel, his first-grade teacher, who struggles to help him, despite the 110 other children in her classroom vying for her attention. "He must have seen something," she said.

Conflict continues

More than 163 people have been killed in the fighting and scores injured, the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), the chief government coordinating body for disaster and rehabilitation operations, reported, with some 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

Whole communities have been obliterated, say aid workers.

Of the more than 300,000 people receiving assistance, about 75,000 are in evacuation centres, many of them schools, with the rest staying with relatives and friends, the NDCC reported.

"Pupils, particularly when they see members of the armed forces, become nervous. Even the sound of an airplane leaves many of them running for cover," said Meriam Kagui, a government volunteer at the school.

"We try to calm them, but it's not always possible," she said.

Impact of stress

According to specialists, psychological distress manifests itself among children in two ways - they may become more passive, withdrawn and less interested in their surroundings, or overly active and even aggressive to the point of being disruptive or rebellious.

Without a psycho-social assessment, however, it is difficult to determine the child's mental health, experts say.

"All the factors that can put stress on a child like a lack of basic services, detachment from a nurturing and caring environment, [the] disruption of routines like schooling, are present," Leon Dominador Fajardo, a child protection specialist with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN in Manila.

Unless the fighting stops and families are allowed to return to their homes and routines safely, such stress will continue.

But in the interim, there are measures that can be taken to limit stress factors, said Faiardo, including a safe and secure environment for the children, free of threats of violence and harassment; a semblance of normalcy in activities such as school; ensuring children and their families have access to basic and emergency services; and group activities that will help children reestablish structure in their lives.

"This would include play, sports, art and recreation activities and other structured group activities and encouraging community involvement," Fajardo said.

During times of emergencies all children will exhibit changes in behaviour, emotions, thoughts and action, including nightmares, bedwetting, withdrawal, and tantrums - all of which would disappear if the child were in a safe and secure environment, he said.

If not, more serious mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, could occur, he warned.

UNICEF response

UNICEF has taken a number of steps in addressing the psycho-social wellbeing of children as part of its emergency response effort in Mindanao, including working with various groups to facilitate access by displaced families to safe and secure surroundings and basic services; to restore schooling or provide alternative learning opportunities and to establish child-friendly spaces where structured group activities and learning can take place.

The agency has also organised the Child Protection Network in Central Mindanao, a group of 10 local and international organisations involved in child protection activities, such as providing educational and play activities and creating spaces for children to feel safe and express themselves.

With its partners on the ground, UNICEF continues to provide child protection services, including the establishment of some 51 child-friendly spaces or alternative learning centres for about 6,000 children in conflict-affected communities in the provinces of North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, Maguindanao and Shariff Kabunsuan.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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