INTERVIEW-Haiti quake a chance to boost child protection

Tue Mar 30, 2010 1:31pm EDT

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By Katherine Baldwin

LONDON, March 30 (Reuters) - The Haiti earthquake offers an opportunity to improve the protection of children in a country where they have been routinely abandoned, trafficked and exploited, a senior United Nations official said on Tuesday.

Susan Bissell, head of child protection at U.N. children's fund UNICEF said increased attention and funding for Haiti could help transform a troubling landscape for children in the impoverished country.

She pointed to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia's Aceh province as evidence that an emergency can be used as a launch pad for a better child protection system.

"We've seen systems strengthened in countries where they were weak before," Bissell said in an interview. "I think it is possible (in Haiti)."

In Haiti, 50,000 children were in institutional care -- for example in centres for abandoned babies or orphanages -- before the earthquake, according to the government.

Some centres had questionable standards and the entire sector was unmonitored, UNICEF says. Large numbers of children in the centres had families who visited them but had given them up in the hope of providing them with a better life.

Before the earthquake, UNICEF, working with the government and local partners, had already put systems in place to improve child safety.

They had set up a community-based network of volunteers, and child protection brigades had been created within the Haitian national police.

These efforts must now be stepped up, Bissell said.

"We need people, we need social workers, people who can do psycho-social support, we need community mobilisers who can get children into schools, we need to quadruple the number of police who are trained in child protection," she said.

"We need to step all this up and that's going to take sustained interest and sustained financial support."



SEPARATED CHILDREN

In the near-term, however, UNICEF's focus is on registering separated and unaccompanied children, which will take months.

So far, 600 such children have been identified and provided with safe temporary shelter. Once they are registered, UNICEF and its partners trace the children's family members by encouraging them to draw pictures and recall aspects of their family life.

But changing social norms in a country where parents often put children into care because of poverty will take many years, Bissell added.

Government statistics show there are 12,500 children aged between five to 14 in child labour, 173,000 in domestic service, up to 4,000 living on the streets, and 2,000 trafficked out of the country annually.

"When we look at the social norms -- I give up my child because I know someone else is going to take care of him and give him a better life -- we can't just throw money at that.

"It can take up to a generation to address these kind of practices," Bissell said. (For more news on humanitarian issues please visit www.alertnet.org or email alertnetnewsdesk@reuters.com) (Editing by Noah Barkin)

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