Normality amid chaos: study of Child Friendly Spaces

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 15:43 GMT

A Child Friendly Space for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

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Humanitarian agencies have for some time set aside spaces within refugee camps, often little more than a simple tent, where trained volunteers and emergency staff can support children through the chaos of displacement. At World Vision, we use them to provide some semblance of ‘normality’ for young minds while teaching them various ways to protect themselves from harm and ill health in high risk situations. We train qualified volunteers to provide creative play and learning activities, sports and games to help children work through any traumatic events they may have experienced. The aim is to combat the huge stress children and young people suffer when caught up in conflict or disaster, and the disruption to their life chances by being pulled out of school and home community.

But it’s not a perfect science; no systematic study has been carried out to measure how well CFSs work and identify where they fall down. That is until now. World Vision International is conducting a three-year study of CFS with Columbia University with a selection of different groups of refugees we work with, including Syrian refugees in Kurdistan, Somali refugees in Ethiopia and Congolese refugees in a resettlement centre in Uganda. Within the humanitarian community, there has been so much interest in this research that other agencies are now also collaborating.

Our latest study, of a CFS for Syrian refugees in Domiz Camp, Iraqi Kurdistan - in which we collaborated with UNICEF and Save The Children - found evidence that this tool can reduce the risk to refugee children of being pushed into child labour, forced marriage or trafficking – what we call ‘negative coping strategies’, because while these outcomes hurt children they are frequently used by families in desperate times as a survival tool. The positive result was especially so for children aged 12-16. Children attending our CFS, we found, use only one relatively minor negative coping strategy – avoiding talking about their experiences and feelings – whereas children we studied who don’t attend CFS more often report being drawn into child marriage and child labour. They are also at higher risk of trafficking.

Similarly, the earlier studies with Congolese and Somali refugees found that, over time, Congolese children attending CFS were better protected and became more socially adaptable than those who didn’t attend; they had a stronger capacity for social competence and were better able ask those around them for help and support. The same children also maintained healthy levels of social and emotional functioning, which we NGO types call psychosocial wellbeing, while their counterparts who didn’t attend the CFS experienced a significant reduction in their psychosocial wellbeing.

Significantly, there was a clear link between well-managed CFS with better quality activities and the healthiest psychosocial wellbeing outcomes.From our work with, for example, former child soldiers in Africa and children affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, we already know that psychosocial stress among children can lead to a lifetime of extra problems, damaging their developing brains and their acquisition of positive coping mechanisms – such as simply being able to talk about their feelings with friends and family, or engaging in play.

For Somali refugee children attending CFS, there was a greater sense of protection particularly against rape and other forms of sexual violence, compared to children who didn’t attend. The evidence for improvement in psychosocial wellbeing was less marked than for Congolese children, though Somali boys aged 6-11 showed the strongest benefits, particularly from participating in structured activities inside the CFS. There was also some evidence of CFSs supporting children with extreme psychosocial difficulties. Those CFSs also focused more on education than on wellbeing.

However, the findings among the Syrian refugee children in Iraqi Kurdistan are not entirely positive; there was no clear evidence that CFS reduced psychosocial stress, partly because circumstances prevented conducting both ‘before and after’ surveys, making it impossible to tell whether more children with emotional difficulties gravitated to the CFS, or if their attendance sensitised them or their parents to such difficulties.

There is a difficult trade-off for many families who take their children to a CFS. Families living in refugee camps are under immense pressure to find work and food. In our study of the Domiz camp, we found that some families sent their children to as a means of childcare while they went out looking for ways to make money for their household livelihoods. For other families, sending their kids to the CFS is deemed to hurt their ability to bring in money, taking potential earners out of the equation. Children become family earners in these dire circumstances when their families succumb to pushing them into child labour, marrying off young daughters, or even trafficking children for money, knowingly or unwittingly. These are the realities of family economic survival amid war, conflict, devastation and displacement. When children attended the CFS in Domiz, we found that families sometimes suffer financially as a result because their children aren’t available for the labour market.

Another, recent World Vision study and research by Harvard University with Syrian refugee children in Lebanon both tell a similar story. Families felt forced to send their children, sometimes as young as four years old, to work or occasionally to marry young daughters to older men, while a few brave mothers were prepared to sacrifice income and food so their children were protected from harmful work and able to continue schooling. We also know that children sometimes sense themselves to have become a burden to their caregivers; they feel the desire, and the responsibility, to contribute to the family income and survival.

What do these findings mean for how we operate our CFS? We certainly need to reconsider both the scheduling, such as what times of day we should operate CFS to help families, and the format – including the type and quality of age appropriate training provided, and links to other services like health - of our CFS to support caregivers seeking and maintaining work in and around refugee camps. We need to think about whether it would be appropriate to provide vocational training inside the CFS for older children to prepare them to supplement family livelihoods in less harmful fields of work. In addition, it’s important for CFS to extend their influence beyond an ‘oasis of safety’ in the midst of chaos by being a part of the formal and informal child protection networks existing in refugee camps. These can comprise any and all mixtures of the host country’s government departments on women and children, justice and social welfare  coordinating with community and faith leaders, NGOs, UN agencies, and other interested parties within the refugee society.

Perhaps we need to our CFS to be more pragmatic in helping refugee families. If we can help these families find a third way between impossible decisions – send your child to a CFS or send them into dangerous child labour, marriage, or trafficking – those spaces would be able to tackle the life-limiting burden of psychosocial stress children live with every day, month and year they have to survive camp life.

Andrew Ware is a senior child rights programme adviser for World Vision UK’s Policy and Public Affairs team. You can read the World Vision/Columbia University study on the Domiz camp CFS at