Child friendly spaces can be the remedy to untold fears

Published: 20 February 2014 9:51 CET

Nelly Muluka, IFRC, and Emaddin Al Imam, Sudanese Red Crescent Society

When conflict descends on a nation, the psychological effects, on adults and children alike, can last for years, if not dealt with in good time.

Following violence in South Kordofan, Sudan, many families were displaced, including children of all ages. The Sudanese Red Crescent Society (SRCS) knew it had to help the young ones cope with what they had experienced and, through its tracing department, engaged the children in several psychosocial support activities.

“Children are victims of circumstances during conflict. Some are too young to even comprehend what is happening, but they are definitely aware that something is not right. Their fears may not be audibly expressed, but through their actions, we are able to identify children who are traumatized,” says Emaddin Al Imam, tracing field officer, SRCS.

“After the South Kordofan violence, we initiated several child protection activities to provide a safe space for children to come to address the trauma they had witnessed. We did this through recreation, education and awareness activities. We also worked on identifying and responding to cases of separated and unaccompanied minors, to help reunite them with their families or to find alternative care solutions where reunification was not possible,” Al Imam continues.

Staff and volunteers at SRCS say they have seen children withdraw from their daily life, while others exhibit extreme fear. 

“Through education and recreation we are able to identify the children’s fears and traumas, and help them deal with them professionally,” says Al Imam, adding that when asked to draw or make something, some children often draw or mold images of guns and bullets; things related to the violence. "They express the same during play, with some children being very withdrawn, others becoming aggressive, and still others using language to voice their fears.”

Umbala Mohammed Gumaa is a mother to a boy and girl, both of whom have taken part in the activities arranged for children.

“We were displaced during the violence. When we returned to Kadugli, the kindergarten where my children went had been closed down. The teachers had also been forced to other villages. The children had no school to go to and stayed at home with me. That was when I realized that they had been so deeply traumatized by the sound of gunshots that they could not even stand the sound of a vehicle. They would scream and run in fear and refuse to go out, to eat or even to play for days,” says Gumaa.

However, after taking part in the activities arranged in the child friendly space, Gumaa says she a positive change in her children in a very short time.

“When my children started attending the child friendly space sessions, they started eating well and became more lively, trusting and telling stories about the games they played, their encounters with the Red Crescent volunteers and their new friends. They generally looked relaxed,” Gumaa says.

But it is not always easy, helping a young one work through their trauma. “Depending on the magnitude of the trauma that individual children undergo, it takes time to gain their trust and even that of their parents. Some children need to be referred to a  specialist. In addition, there are times when you deal with the child, but the parent is also traumatized. If they have not been assisted emotionally, there is the risk they will undo the positive progress being seen in their children.”

Overall, Al Imam is pleased with the success of the project, which was funded by UNICEF. He says that apart from it being helpful for children, parents are also taught about health education and hygiene awareness.

“Nothing leaves us as satisfied as seeing the once-withdrawn children running around, playing, laughing and being just that – children!”