The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with 1.5 million people concentrated in an area of only 365km2. More than half of these people are children below the age of 18, of whom 69% are refugees. Violence has had an appalling impact on Gazas children. Between 2000 and 2008, over 600 were killed in conflict-related violence; another 300 died in Israels military offensive, Cast Lead, in DecemberJanuary 2009. Some 50,000 were displaced.
Child protection in Gaza
Starting in 2006, Save the Children and its partner organisations have carried out a number of qualitative participatory assessments in the villages of Beit Lahia, Beit Hanoun, Jabalia, Shejahiya, Bureij, Magazi, Qarara, Khoza and Al Shoka. The main objective of the work has been to identify emerging child protection risks as a consequence of the armed violence in Gaza, and its impact on childrens lives. The assessments have also identified the traditional methods used by parents and other care-givers to protect children from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
Through a participatory exercise, children identified the main protection risks they face at home, in schools and in the wider community. Two main child participatory tools have been used: the Child Protection Map and the Matrix and Ranking of Child Protection Risks. First, the children drew on maps of their villages what they considered to be the day-to-day risks they faced, then listed all the protection risks identified on the map, wrote them in a Matrix, ranked the identified protection risks and discussed causes and possible responses.
Most of the children said that domestic violence had increased. They indicated that their parents were more nervous and reacted more violently towards them whenever they were disrespectful or disobedient. This they related to the worsening economic conditions facing their families. Unemployment and the loss of job opportunities have led to economic hardship and frustration within families, increasingly expressed as verbal and physical violence towards children and women.
Children also noted that violence among their peers, in the form of bullying or fights, had become more common. During discussions, children stated that every child had joined a gang as a means of self-defence. Children reported that their role models were Palestinian fighters because they are the only ones doing something to protect us from the war and the occupation. They also said that they believed that no one was really interested in protecting them, and that teachers, local organisations and politicians had only their personal interests in mind.
The findings of these consultations were discussed later with parents, teachers and other school personnel, health workers, religious leaders and extended family leaders, municipal employees and other professionals, such as police officers, doctors, professors, company directors and members of community-based organisations. Although most of the adults were surprised by the childrens answers, they agreed with what they had said. The adults explained that their role as parents and care-givers had become more difficult as their children were more rebellious, disobedient and difficult to control. Parents noted that, because they had less income and could not prevent recurrent outbreaks of violence, their children no longer respected them or believed that they would be able to protect them. Parents and other community members felt that political rivalries had also created tensions and even conflict within communities. Parents also highlighted feelings of isolation and helplessness. Parents defined child protection as security, access to services such as health and education, the end of the occupation and jobs to ensure that children have food, clothing and other necessities. At the same time, care-givers admitted that violence towards children had increased, and they were aware of the negative impact of physical and verbal abuse on the development of the child.
Supporting community-based child protection
Following these consultations, Save the Children Sweden and its partner organisation, the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR), began supporting community-based child protection groups in three villages in the south of the Gaza Strip, Al Shoka, Khozaa and Qarara. These communities, which are located along the eastern border of the Strip, were selected because they have been heavily affected by armed conflict. The main source of income for families in these communities used to be agriculture and labouring work in Israel, but since 2005 Palestinian workers have not been allowed to cross into Israel for work. Meanwhile, intensified conflict from 2006 resulted in the destruction of citrus groves and agricultural land by the Israeli army. Save the Children and PCDCR already had a presence in the three targeted locations, and the good relationship the agency enjoyed with these communities was another factor influencing the choice of location.
With the support of Save the Children and PCDCR a Child Protection Committee was formed in each community, involving influential community members, representatives from community based organisations, primary health clinics, schools and the police and religious leaders. Following a brainstorming session focusing on the causes of violence against children, the committees highlighted the need to intervene in the domestic, school and peer spheres through awareness-raising and capacity-building, by establishing a monitoring system to detect children at risk of or already affected by violence, and to create a referral mechanism. Young adults were chosen for training to help them raise awareness of childrens rights, child protection risks and the negative impact of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation on childrens cognitive, emotional and physical development. In addition, children from the three communities, supported by the members of the Child Protection Committees, were asked to identify trusted individuals in the community to act as focal points for receiving childrens reports and concerns and providing advice and guidance. Referral mechanisms linking the committees to health clinics, schools and other organisations were also established, both for referral purposes and to strengthen the coordination between care-givers and service providers.
Within each committee, two sub-committees were established, one comprising fathers and the other community workers. The fathers sub-committees are responsible for mediating between students, teachers and parents (as fathers are traditionally in charge of a childs education), for example preventing or intervening in cases of conflict or where a child drops out of school. The community workers sub-committees are involved in case management, and are focal points for children and parents using the referral mechanisms.
Following Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, a new assessment was carried out by the child protection committees. This highlighted the need to enhance the capacity of families to protect their members during emergencies, and support for the sub-committees to identify children and adults psychologically affected by the conflict. Many families still live close to the Israeli border, but leave their homes every night to stay with relatives in villages or other locations considered safer. Every adult and child interviewed during the assessment expressed feelings of constant insecurity and powerlessness, as well as a desperate need to develop strategies to ensure that children and women at least can find refuge in safe shelters.
In response to the needs expressed, the sub-committees agreed to develop and pilot community-based emergency preparedness plans. Commitments were made to actively involve all community members in identifying the main protection risks and possible solutions, to identify and use resources available within their communities and to involve other national and international humanitarian organisations. Emergency sub-committees were subsequently established and trained in emergency preparedness planning and response by Save and its partner, PCDCR. The sub-committees have identified three main scenarios for which communities need to be prepared: conflict, floods and epidemics. Accordingly, they have developed a plan to ensure the preparedness and protection of every community member, with a special focus on the most vulnerable, including children.
The plans, which are largely the same for the three communities, allow for further capacity-building of community focal points on primary health care, the distribution of first aid equipment, information and communications networks, evacuation plans for schools and other public services, tracing mechanisms for separated families and care for orphaned children and those separated from their parents or main caregivers. In the near future, the emergency plan will be discussed with organisations such as UNRWA, the ICRC, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, UNICEF, the Save the Children Alliance and national organisations. Children are to be actively involved, with capacity-building tools in areas such as first aid, disaster risk reduction and mine risk education. Childrens sub-committees have been established in each community to increase participation in the decision-making process within the Child Protection Committees, to improve communication between children and decision-makers and to ensure a more child-friendly approach to protection issues.
It is too early to evaluate the impact of the Child Protection Committees and the activities implemented in terms of reduced levels of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Nevertheless, ongoing monitoring indicates that the committees have succeeded in encouraging and facilitating more open discussion about child protection risks, childrens rights and the responsibilities of government, care-givers and other duty-bearers, and in supporting families and communities to protect their children. Examples include the active involvement of religious leaders in awareness-raising activities, such as discussing the importance of respecting childrens rights during Friday prayers, the regular participation of professionals from the three communities in individual case management meetings and the development of emergency preparedness plans.
Conclusion: first steps
The work outlined here constitutes only a first step towards a functional and effective child protection mechanism in the Gaza Strip. To be effective, community groups need to be integrated and coordinated with the national child protection system at all levels. Yet in the Gaza Strip, a national child protection system, in terms of governmental action towards the prevention, detection and response to violence against children, does not exist. Judicial and welfare services have been severely disrupted, which means that civil society has been the main body seeking to support child protection by raising families and childrens awareness of childrens rights and protection strategies, providing services, monitoring childrens rights and advocating on child protection with national and international actors. That said, there is a clear lack of effective coordination between local organisations providing support to children and adults and, as a consequence, an effective referral system is still not in place, and reliable data on child rights violations is not available.
Save the Children and PCDCR believe that, to achieve long-lasting changes in the lives of children, community-based child protection committees will have to be supported and strengthened over the long term. Ensuring childrens rights to protection necessitates not only the establishment of community-based mechanisms for prevention and response, but also changes in the attitudes and practices of individuals and communities. PCDCR has prioritised its interventions in the three targeted communities, to ensure that it will be able to accompany the committees through the years, expanding and supporting their work. Save the Children is engaged in a four-year strategy which aims to strengthen the national child protection system. It is the strategy of Save the Children, PCDCR and the committees to link the national social welfare system to community-based mechanisms.
Dominique Sbardella is Regional Child Protection and Emergency Program Advisor, Regional Office for MENA, Save the Children Sweden. Her email address is: email@example.com.