Israel Rodríguez Giralt
Participation as a tool for building resilience in children and young people in disaster situations
Reading time: 10 minutes.
This series is offered by researchers, science communicators and academic staff working together to bring you into closer contact with science. The “Dive into Science Week with UOC Researchers” series combines the UOC’s online expertise with the offline events organized for Science Week to create an online slow-reading experience. For Science Week 2017, we’ll share scientific knowledge on e-learning, eHealth, digital humanities, and ICTs in social science. Today we highlight the research on disaster risk reduction through citizen participation focused on children and young people in the Horizon 2020-funded CUIDAR project.
“Children and young people do not identify with the current paternalist approach to civil defence. Today, they ask to be fully empowered citizens: to participate, be active, cooperate... “
This sentence summarizes the talk given last 19 October, at the CUIDAR project seminar, by a leading expert in civil defence from the Government of Catalonia. It encapsulates perfectly the type of work and impact fostered by the CUIDAR project (Horizon 2020) in Europe among government agencies and professionals who are responsible for civil defence services and systems. Rooted in the principles of the United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the CUIDAR project fosters participation as a tool for enhancing the resilience of children and young people to disasters and enabling disaster responders to meet children and young people’s needs more effectively.
Childhood, participation and disasters
Disasters are becoming increasingly common and complex, not just because of their causes, normally a complex combination of natural, social and cultural factors, but also because of the quantity and diversity of players and strategies that must be involved and coordinated in order to cope with them. To this must be added the diversity of reactions and behaviours by the populations affected by the disaster (driven by social class, age, gender, race, etc.) and the effect that disasters have on the culture(s) of the various groups affected.
However, this cultural and sociological complexity is rarely taken into account on a political and organizational level. As a general rule, policies, legal frameworks and emergency plans tend to homogenize the population and overlook the distinctive features of the various groups and individuals affected. This is particularly so in the case of children and young people. They are one of the most severely affected groups in a disaster situation and, in part, this is because their voice and agency are systematically ignored. The generalized view of children and young people as a passive, vulnerable, even problematic group in the management of an emergency prevents us from seeing them as social agents with knowledge, ideas and capabilities for the management of disasters. In this context, the CUIDAR project seeks a greater and better understanding of children’s and young people’s experiences in disasters, identifying their ideas, needs and proposals with the aim of making them known to professionals and policymakers and fostering a more participative culture in the field of civil defence.
A comparative review of disaster management concerning children and young people
The CUIDAR project began in mid-2015 with a comparative review of disaster management policies, plans and practices concerning children and young people in each of the participant countries. Basically, this project showed us that interest in this issue in Europe is still incipient, particularly when compared with countries such as New Zealand, Australia, the United States or Japan. Although we have found interesting examples of participation, most of the initiatives we have analysed are school-centred and instructional and give priority to educating in emergencies and disasters from the perspective of experts and professionals. In general, there has been little legislative and government effort to ensure greater involvement and participation from children and young people in managing and preventing this type of situation. We also observe a lack of knowledge of children’s rights and the frameworks that regulate and foster increased participation by this social group. Generally speaking, child and youth participation is framed within adult culture, knowledge and priorities, which hampers outlets for significantly channelling this group’s voice and agency. In order to improve this situation, among other issues, it is important to dispel the image of children and young people as a homogeneous, passive population that is helpless when faced with the impact of a disaster.
This is precisely what CUIDAR has tried to do in the following stages of the project: give visibility and connectivity to the diversity, capabilities and agency of children and young people when faced with disaster situations. First, by fostering dialogue with children and young people in different countries on their rights, knowledge, perceptions and needs in disaster and risk situations.through workshops. Exploring Subsequently, we have organized mutual learning activities with professionals and experts with the goal of mutually exchanging ideas, experiences and knowledge. And lastly, we have organized an awareness creation and communication event in which children and young people, together with CUIDAR researchers, have shared the most significant lessons learned, results and proposals that have emerged from this process. The project will conclude in mid-2018 with a final conference in Lisbon where the compared results from the various participating countries will be discussed and the European framework of recommendations for cooperation between professionals, children and young people in disaster management will be presented.
The Spanish case study
In the case of Spain, the field work has been carried out in four different locations: Barcelona, Gandesa, Sant Celoni and Lorca. These have been chosen for their proximity to certain risks. The field work has used at all times a participative approach that encouraged the children and young people to take as many decisions as possible. During this process, we have found that, in general, children and young people are unaware of their rights, in particular article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that refers to the right of children to opinion, to be listened to and to be taken seriously. Given the project’s participative nature, different risks and disasters have been explored in each territory, leading to a diversity of demands and proposals, although they also shared a number of common points. The most significant results will be outlined in the following paragraphs.
Participative map of risks in Ciutat Meridiana
One cross-cutting aspect that emerges is the importance of feelings and emotions in how children and young people experience and perceive disasters.
“We have no information about what we should do or where we should go if we are at home or in the street if there’s an earthquake because there is a lack of emotional education.” (A teenager in Lorca, 17 years old)
Although emotions and feelings are not always recognized immediately by professionals, parents and adults in general, they play a fundamental role in building meaning, developing risk perception, creating self-reliance and fostering decision-making among children and young people. For them, feelings and emotions are a basic channel for giving meaning, individually and collectively, to a disaster. Therefore, it is essential that this dimension be acknowledged and developed by everyone who works in civil defence and seeks greater involvement of children and young people. It is also within this context that we should understand the importance of using maps, games or creative expressions such as drawings, songs and stories in work and in the participation and learning dynamics with children and young people. These tools and outputs enable us to engage emotionally with this group in disaster management and gain a better understanding of their ideas, experiences, needs and proposals.
Concluding, for children and young people emotions and feelings are key factors for understanding and preparing oneself and acting in a disaster. And for caring for others in a disaster. For them, knowing, acknowledging and controlling emotions are inextricably linked with self-control, a perception of security and self-reliance.
Another important aspect for children and young people is the need to reappraise self-protection. Self-protection is understood to mean the system of actions and measures aimed at preventing and controlling risks for people and objects, providing an appropriate response to possible emergency situations and guaranteeing integration of these actions with the public civil defence system. In particular, children and young people consider it essential to have information programmes and emergency plans that are more aligned with their needs, age or culture. For example, they think that younger children, but teenagers too, are often excluded from the programmes. This is something that we have been able to confirm in the Europe-wide scoping review performed for the CUIDAR project. This review found that most disaster management programmes and actions aimed at children and young people target in particular those aged between 8 and 15.
The gender variable also seems to be important. As the literature shows, gender is a significant variable in explaining the experience of disasters and defining the roles or expectations of boys, girls and young people. However, this variable is given little visibility among children and young people. And the same happens with other diversities that are considered important by children and young people, for example, language and cultural and religious diversity, or functional diversity, which is also very prominent on the participative maps. Children and young people have talked to us about the importance of considering different degrees of mobility, values, cultures and religions, about the need to take them into account when designing self-protection measures and to view them as a source of knowledge and that can enrich our societies.
Self-protection in public spaces
Lastly, children and young people also highlight the importance of working on self-protection in spaces outside of the school or home. The streets and parks, and public spaces in general, have been identified as spaces that are important for them. Spaces where they go to play and interact, to learn and have fun, for which there are often no self-protection plans and where there is significantly less adult influence and supervision. This is particularly important for teenagers, who ask insistently for tools and training to enable them to handle emergencies and risks in these spaces, without this necessarily implying any waiver of independence, dynamics or peer organization that they think it is important to keep. These proposals pose new challenges for self-protection, highlighting the need to work more collaboratively with children and young people, who wish to play an active role and share responsibility for managing their safety and that of their communities. Concluding, it is important for children and young people to counteract the monolithic, stereotypical image that is generally held of them as a homogeneous group. When thinking about self-protection and emergency plans, it is important to acknowledge the many childhoods and diversities existing within this social group.
Communicating and explaining the risks properly is fundamental for children and young people. They are also concerned about the quality and certainty of the information, the need to counteract rumour mongering and how to get messages to population segments that may be outside of certain communication channels and networks, particularly very young children and elderly people. This concern is also accompanied by a clear wish to participate and play a more active role, sometimes a central role, in information and communication activities.
Teenagers in particular perceive themselves as a group that is especially qualified to help improve communication in emergency and disaster situations, by helping to explain risks to other children and adults, designing awareness-raising campaigns, reappraising self-protection materials and emergency plans, fostering and leading mutual support spaces or playing an active role in the social media they use most, especially YouTube and Instagram. In our opinion, the keen interest and communicative profile shown by children and young people should provide an interesting starting point for professionals and policymakers, as it offers the possibility of conceiving a resilience model that is based on a fruitful interaction between technologies, communication and young people who are eager to be a part of it.
What the project highlights is that participation is a very effective tool for individually and collectively building resilience in children and young people. Involving children and young people at an emotional, informative and communicational level is not just a way to give prominence to these issues but also to encourage them to play a much more active role, supporting their rights as citizens and helping them combine their voice and social and political visibility. This not only impacts on our societies’ democratic quality but also has a positive effect on the quality of civil defence services and systems, and on the creation and quality of the resilience that our societies can construct.
CUIDAR is coordinated by the University of Lancaster (United Kingdom), with participation of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Save the Children United Kingdom (SAVE United Kingdom); Institute of Social Science, University of Lisbon (ICSUL), Save the Children Italy (SAVE Italy); Panepistimio Thessalias (UTH).