Child Friendly Spaces

Sichuan Earthquake Three Year Special

Cheng Jing
Child Friendly Spaces
UNICEF/China/2009/Zhao Jia
17 May 2011

"The total population of Hongbai Town in Shifang County is 6,485, of which 3,286 are female and 1,127 are children. In the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, 159 children were killed and 226 were injured or disabled," said Lian Shengqiong, as she presented an overview of the situation of children and women in Hongbai Town.

In the three years since the earthquake, Ms. Lian, the 40-year-old manager of the UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Space in Hongbai Town, has seen a lot and changed a lot. In 2008, when the Child Friendly Space was first set up in Xinghe, the largest temporary settlement camp in Hongbai Town, Ms. Lian was hesitant and somewhat intimidated about the idea of delivering community-based child services. Today, the Child Friendly Space is located in the newly-built Hongbai Town Culture and Activity Centre, and is a recognized provider of children's services among the 1,244 households in the community.

Thinking back on all the people she has met and the huge changes that have taken place during the past three years, Lian is overwhelmed with emotions. These are some of their stories.

"The principle of ‘children first' guides everything that we do"

Little Hao Dong was just four years old when he was badly injured in the earthquake. In the weeks after the earthquake, Hao Dong became bad-tempered and was frequently withdrawn, refusing to communicate with those around him.

Today, a deep scar is still visible along the back of Hao Dong's head, but the 7-year-old is a changed boy. Ever since the Hongbai Child Friendly Space opened in the months after the earthquake, Hao Dong has been a frequent visitor. "There are lots of toys here. And books. And other children." Hao Dong said. While he can still be a shy boy, Hao Dong has become more outgoing and more cheerful, said his grandmother.

Ms. Lian is proud of the progress that Hao Dong has made. Last summer, the Hongbai Child Friendly Space organized summer activities for children in the community, and Hao Dong helped her to keep the Child Friendly Space neat and clean. Since then, Hao Dong has become a regular volunteer at the Child Friendly Space. He has made many friends this way.

"The Child Friendly Space has given children the opportunity to learn about and exercise their rights to participation and protection. It has also given children like Hao Dong the opportunity to help others. The principle of 'Children First' guides everything that we do here," said Ms. Lian.

Hongbai Town Child Friendly Space regularly organizes community events for the children, including sports days, arts days, and drawing and calligraphy exhibitions. Unlike traditional events for children that are decided by adults, however, these activities are organized, from the beginning, with the participation of children. During a community-wide event held last summer, 10-year-old Zhou Fanghan served as Master of Ceremonies, even writing her own script. "Before, I was always timid and reluctant to express myself because I was afraid of being criticized by others. Now, I've learned to accept people's feedback and take their suggestions for improvement positively. I'm excited about having more opportunities to express myself," little Fanghan said, with a glowing smile.

"I've learned to respect children and to listen to them more"

On any given day at the Hongbai Child Friendly Space, there are many preschool-aged children, accompanied by their parents and caregivers. The Child Friendly Spaces are not only a space for children to play, but also a place for young parents and old grandparents alike to learn about child health, nutrition and early child development. The staff of the Child Friendly Spaces supervise parents as they engage in structured, supportive games with their children. In this way, the Child Friendly Spaces are supporting the development of a new childrearing culture in rebuilt communities in the earthquake zone.

One little girl who is a regular visitor to the Child Friendly Space is two-year-old Zhou Xiaocan, who has been coming since she was only six weeks old. The Child Friendly Space has become the window through which the little girl has come to experience the world, explained Xiaocan's grandmother. For Xiaocan's grandmother, the Child Friendly Space has equally been a place for new perspectives and experiences. "In the past, when we were raising our children and they were not obedient, we would get angry and sometimes even physically discipline them. Since coming to the Child Friendly Space, I've become more patient. I've learned to respect children and to listen to them more. This has made it easier to raise them," Xiaocan's grandmother said.

"I've watched the children grow, but I am learning so much"

The Hongbai Child Friendly Space is managed by Ms. Lian and her team of three staff. In the three years since the earthquake, the team has received extensive training from UNICEF, and has learned to provide high-quality services to children.

One member of the team is 25-year-old Liu Qing. Ever since she was young, Liu Qing has had a passion for drawing and making handicrafts. "I never imagined that my childhood passions would be so useful in my current work for children. Working at the Child Friendly Space has been a wonderful experience for me… I've watched the children grow, but I am learning so much myself," she said.

Since participating in UNICEF-supported training, Liu has becoming familiar with the principles of gender equality and "children first," and has learned to integrate these concepts into her work, and share them with parents. According to Liu, "We help to take care of children at the Child Friendly Space, but our responsibility is not to 'babysit' children. We also work with parents so that they can provide higher-quality care and raise their children in a more child-friendly and supportive environment. Depending on the situation of each child's family, we will provide different trainings," Liu Qing said.

A staff worker comforts a boy at a UNICEF-supported Child Friendly School.

"I am so happy to see him as good as in the past"

Hongbai Child Friendly Space has played a critical role in providing earthquake-affected children and women with psychosocial services and a strong support network, helping them regain confidence and reintegrate into society.

Before the earthquake, Chang Li was a cheerful boy who loved to play sports. After losing his right arm in the earthquake, Chang Li became very introverted, seldom leaving home. While his parents worried about the physical change in their son, they were more worried about the emotional change. They did not how to help him.

One day, Chang Li happened upon the Child Friendly Space by himself. The volunteers there treated him as an equal, and this helped him to feel comfortable in a new environment. Since then, Chang Li has come to the Child Friendly Space frequently to participate in many activities. He has learned to gain confidence and today, the 12-year-old boy uses his left hand to type on the computer and to play badminton and table tennis. Thanks to the support of his parents and the staff and volunteers of the Child Friendly Space, Chang Li has become happier and more self-confident. "I am so happy to see him as good as in the past." Chang Li's mother said, with a big smile on her face.

"We will continue to support the Child Friendly Space model"

In the three years since the earthquake, the Hongbai Child Friendly Space has become fully integrated into community life. By providing psychosocial support, early childhood development and social work services, it has become an integral part of the local landscape for protecting children.

In line with the Government's three-year reconstruction plan, UNICEF's formal support to earthquake reconstruction programmes will continue through May 2011, but the sustainability of the Hongbai Child Friendly Space is assured, as the Shifang County Government has recently decided to allocate 100,000 RMB (US$ 15,000) every year from the local government budget to ensure its continued operation.

According to Lu Zongyin, the Chairwoman of the Shifang County Women's Federation, "The Shifang County Government places a high degree of importance on the work of the Child Friendly Space. We will continue to support the Child Friendly Space model and replicate it in other parts of the county."

In the coming year, the Hongbai Child Friendly Space will continue to reach out to left-behind children in rural areas, and children living in especially difficult circumstances, including orphans and children with disabilities.