Child protection in emergencies, or the importance of letting children be children

24 March 2014 | Sphere Project

Syrian children - Photo Jodi Hilton/IRIN

Children in the Atma camp in northern Syria, which has become temporary home to thousands of people who have fled the violence as the war rages on in the country. Photo © Jodi Hilton/IRIN

The more vulnerable you are, the more likely you are to suffer if your world is turned upside-down. Children in war- or disaster-affected zones know this all too well. Clearly, they need special protection measures. But is it a good idea to try to protect them by implementing humanitarian standards?

Published in October 2012, the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action is the youngest member of the Sphere companion standards family - that is, a grouping of humanitarian standards which, having been developed through a similar process and approach, are complementary to the Sphere Handbook.

Minja Peuschel is one of the two Co-Chairs of the Child Protection Minimum Standards Task Force within the global Child Protection Working Group (CPWG). The CPWG is the meeting point for child protection actors at the global level and the driving force behind the child protection standards. Child protection is one of the "areas of responsibility" within the Global Protection Cluster.

Peuschel spends the other half of her working time as a senior advisor for child protection with Save the Children in Stockholm. Previously, she worked for different organisations on child protection and gender-based violence in Kosovo, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sudan.

Peuschel gently refuses to deliver an "elevator pitch" to define what child protection in emergencies is, but she is happy to explain the concept in plain words.

"Child protection is about making sure children affected by disaster or conflict do not suffer further violence or threats of violence," she says. "Protecting children in emergencies means, among other things, preventing them from being separated from their families, recruited into armed forces or groups, subjected to sexual abuse or physically harmed. Child protection also deals with children's psychosocial wellbeing and seeks to strengthen their own resilience to cope with stress."

"A lot of child protection work in emergencies," Peuschel explains, "is about making sure that certain things - horrible things, that is - do not happen to children, or about mitigating their effects when they do. Child protection is about creating the conditions that will let children be children."

[The Sphere Project] How did the minimum standards for child protection come into being?

[Minja Peuschel] Although humanitarians have been doing child protection work for about a hundred years, a common definition of "child protection" as a sector is quite recent. It wasn't until 2010 that organisations were able to agree on a definition for child protection in emergencies.

In fact, the process reached maturity during the revision of the Sphere Handbook that led to its 2011 edition. The possibility of including child protection fully in the revised Sphere Handbook was considered, but it was finally decided to opt for an independent set of child protection standards.

This was good, because having a ‘dedicated handbook' allowed us to capture the different aspects of child protection more fully. Additionally, it helped define the sector and make it clearer to others. Finally, we hope it will help give more visibility to what traditionally has been one of the least funded sectors in humanitarian response.

The child protection handbook also includes standards aimed at mainstreaming child protection across other sectors. We believe child protection needs to be considered in all areas of humanitarian response. In any emergency, you need all your staff to be aware of the need to protect children and know how to do it.

Why try to achieve this through a set of minimum standards?

In the past, we had guidelines for the different aspects of child protection work, some of them developed at inter-agency level. There was a clear need for a set of standards that could cover all of the aspects and offer a framework for the whole sector.

On the other hand, guidelines have a sort of advisory status, whereas standards allow us to take guidelines a step further, thus increasing accountability. This is a life-saving sector and therefore needs proper standards.

We also wanted to improve our means of measuring what we do, which is a concern shared for instance by governments and donors who want to understand child protection better and increase accountability in this regard. In this sense, having indicators helps, although defining them is always tricky. In discussion with the Sphere Project, we developed the indicators format further.

Of course, it is more difficult when you are defining standards for things you do not want to happen - like, say, child recruitment into armed groups - which is very often the case for all sectors in child protection. Our end goal is happy, non-recruited, non-abused, non-stressed children who can thrive in positive family environments. How do you capture that?

Did it work?

Yes, I think it did! Although, as I said earlier, child protection has its measurement challenges and may be less clear-cut than other sectors.

For instance, the concept that we are working with ‘minimum' standards is tricky when it comes to child protection. When children are affected by war or disaster, what is exactly the ‘minimum' to be achieved? We can never accept even one child being recruited into an armed force or group or being sexually abused. We want to protect one hundred per cent of the children from grave violations like that. At the same time, we don't want the minimum standards to be watered down.

What have you achieved since the launch of the standards? What's been their impact?

One-and-a-half years is too short a period to see the concrete ‘impact' of the standards. However, there is a lot of positive feedback from agencies and governments who say how helpful they find the standards to be for planning or coordination. We have clear anecdotal evidence about the standards being increasingly used. But we can't yet measure the concrete impact of all of this on children.

It is easier to say what has been achieved. The standards are available in six languages, two of which are the result of spontaneous translations. We have developed communications materials, institutionalisation checklists and contextualisation guidelines.

There are already contextualised versions of the handbook for Jordan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. And of course, many launches, presentations, trainings and workshops have already taken place in a number of countries and for different audiences.

The CPWG member organisations assess themselves on how they have implemented the standards, e.g., presented them to staff and included them in organisational tools or guidelines.

We are also working with the country- and regional child protection sub-clusters and working groups, which are the natural channels for the implementation and use of standards at country level.

We have worked very closely with and drawn inspiration from the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), which developed the Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response and Recovery - one of the Sphere Handbook companions. This collaboration allows us to build on much of their experiences and lessons learnt.

How has the companionship with the Sphere Project contributed to your work?

The companionship agreement with the Sphere Project is of immense value to us.

We have seen an increased demand for child protection capacity over the last two years. I strongly suspect that having child protection standards, and those standards being a companion to the Sphere Handbook, have greatly contributed to the fact that other humanitarian sectors, humanitarian managers, donors and the media now seem to have a much clearer understanding of child protection as a professional sector.

And then of course, there is the aspect of collaboration. We get cooperation and support from Sphere as well as from the other companion standards and have been able to build upon their work - we didn't have to start from scratch.

What are your plans?

Some of our immediate plans include developing a series of videos for use in trainings explaining what child protection standards are.

We are also initiating a project in which we will facilitate the development of contextualised versions of the standards by country sub-clusters in East and Central Africa, with a focus on the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes regions.

Later this spring, we will develop child- and youth-friendly versions of the standards. The aim is for children and youth to be aware of what humanitarian workers should be doing to protect them and what role they themselves may be able to play in emergencies.

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Stories of impact

“Since we introduced child protection minimum standards into our way of working, key actors, implementing partners and others are now unable to do without them. They are obliged to integrate them in their planning. They must always show that they have integrated at least one, two or three minimum standards to make sure that everything is being conducted in the right way.” UNICEF staff, Burkina Faso.

“The child protection minimum standards and indicators greatly helped our organisation to understand what it takes to provide a quality child protection programme. Often, strong budget constraints coming from the management or programming sides pushed us to cut back on human resources costs. But with these standards and indicators clearly indicating the minimum ratio between children and trained staff, we are able to secure quality staff members with a capacity-building budget built into our project proposals.” World Vision staff.