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Social protection for children at times of disaster

18 April 2017|Insights


Imagen analisis e investigación Boletín 20
© UNICEF/UNI28338/Abramson

1. Children are highly vulnerable to disasters

Children in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly those living in poverty, are highly vulnerable to disasters and have been disproportionately and increasingly affected by their impacts. Disasters cause disease, injury, loss of life and damage to infrastructure. They also affect families’ livelihoods by destroying their adult members’ productive assets and jobs. People are traumatized by the panic and stress of the experience itself, family separation and the disruption to normal everyday life of having to move house and change schools and diets (ECLAC, 2014). Initial steps have been taken in the region to adopt public policy actions for dealing with disasters. However, these have not explicitly incorporated the children’s rights perspective. This article provides a preliminary insight into the subject of social protection against disasters, placing that perspective at the heart of the debate.

Irrespective of whether they are natural or man-made, disasters are now considered to be social phenomena whose ill-effects could be prevented or mitigated so that their consequences are reduced or at least controlled (ECLAC, 2014). While communities will always have to deal with natural hazards such as floods, droughts, storms, extreme temperatures and earthquakes, the term “natural disaster” is increasingly misleading, as disasters may be due to a combination of forces of nature and human activities, such as environmental degradation or urban sprawl into areas unsuitable for building (Annan, 1999). Disasters ultimately result from a combination of natural phenomena and conditions of physical, social, economic and environmental vulnerability affecting individuals and human settlements (ECLAC, 2014).

Vulnerability is a pre-disaster condition that manifests itself when disaster strikes, and at the same time an indicator of the resilience to harm of countries, communities, households and individuals. Children, especially the youngest, have fewer resources to cope with disasters because of their particular characteristics; hence, they are especially sensitive to the positive and negative aspects of their environment (Bartlett, 2008; Cutter, 1995; Peek, 2008). Given their dependence on adult care, their degree of vulnerability is largely determined by factors such as the level of family income or the educational attainment of the mother, father or caregivers, among others.

Texto destacado 1. Social protection for children

Disasters force families, especially poor ones, to make decisions that can have detrimental long-term effects on children, such as withdrawing them from school or reducing health expenditure, thus aggravating the intergenerational reproduction of poverty (Hallegatte and others, 2017). In Guatemala, for example, Hurricane Stan increased the prevalence of child labour by more than 7% in storm-affected areas (Bustelo, 2011). In Peru, it was observed that the 1970 Ancash earthquake had an impact on the educational attainment of children born on or around the date it occurred to mothers affected by it, showing that the effects of such disasters can extend to the next generation (Caruso and Miller, 2015). Due to the nature and vulnerability of their assets (Hallegatte and others, 2017) and their limited access to disaster risk management instruments (Vakis, 2006), the economic losses of populations living in poverty have been estimated to be two or three times as great in relative terms as those of the non-poor. The fact that children are disproportionately poor makes it even more necessary for public policy initiatives to be adopted to protect them from such events.

By guaranteeing basic levels of income and access to social services (health, education and housing, among others) and assistance, social protection acts as a precautionary measure and improves response capacities (Cecchini and Martínez, 2011), thereby reducing vulnerability and contributing to recovery in the short, medium and long term. Social protection is thus a key public policy for dealing with disasters before, while and after they happen. In particular, it can enhance people’s ability to cope with the negative impacts of climate-related events and lost livelihoods, for example via regular and predictable cash transfers (Ulrichs and Slater, 2016). By helping families to better absorb shocks and cope with crisis situations, social protection can contribute to disaster prevention, mitigation and recovery, and thus have a direct impact on the well-being of children and families (UNICEF, 2012).

2. The frequency of disasters has increased but no statistical information is available on the affected child population

This article considers disasters to be events that severely disrupt the lives of communities and individuals, causing physical damage and loss of human life and capital, and that exceed the response capacity of affected communities. Disasters may be caused by natural phenomena or man-made actions (ECLAC, 2014; Quarantelli, 1998).

The occurrence of disasters worldwide has increased significantly since 1960, and Latin America and the Caribbean has been no exception (Vargas, 2015). From 2005 to 2015, 380 disasters occurred around the world: Asia was the continent most affected (44.4%), followed by the Americas (25.5%), Africa (16.5%), Europe (7.2%) and Oceania (6.4%) (Guha-Sapir, Hoyois and Below, 2016). The frequency of disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased by a factor of 3.6 in half a century. In the 1960s, an average of 19 disasters occurred each year, but in the first decade of the twenty-first century the average rose to 68 per year. Most disasters in the region are related to meteorological and hydrological phenomena such as hurricanes, storms, floods and droughts (Vargas, 2015). However, the disaster that caused most casualties was the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which left 222,570 dead and 300,000 injured, according to the database of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). In 2016, the disasters that caused most deaths were the earthquake in Ecuador (677) and Hurricane Matthew in Haiti (546), which also destroyed numerous homes and left many people injured.

The limitations of statistical information make it difficult to accurately estimate the child population affected by disasters in the countries of the region. However, two trends suggest that the number of children affected is high and rising. First, the number of disasters occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased. Second, the child population has grown, there now being 163 million people between the ages of 0 and 14 (see figure 1). Although growth in the total population aged 0 to 14 went into reverse in the mid-2000s, it remains positive in many of the countries seriously affected by disasters, such as those of Central America and Haiti.


Figure 1
Latin America and the Caribbean: frequency of disasters and population aged 0 to 14

Latin America and the Caribbean: frequency of disasters and population aged 0 to 14 1950-2015

Source: Prepared by the authors on the basis of data from CEPALSTAT and the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), Brussels [online] ://

The number of children affected annually by disasters worldwide in the late 1990s has been estimated at 66.6 million, and it is anticipated that, given the impact of climate change, this figure could increase to 175 million per year in the coming decades (Tarazona and Gallegos, 2015). However, these are rough estimates that do not provide a clear understanding of childhood vulnerability and its relationship with the impacts of disasters. In particular, international databases that break down data by age, sex, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status are limited due to the lack of individual and geographically localized information (Tarazona and Gallegos, 2015). Furthermore, quantitative information should be complemented with qualitative studies that capture the voices of children and provide a more holistic view of the impact of disasters.

3. International agreements call for children’s rights to be prioritized in disaster situations and their voices heard

National disaster mitigation efforts and actions must be supported by an international context favourable to their implementation. Accordingly, the United Nations has developed international action plans to reduce social, economic and environmental losses caused by disasters and to prevent future risks (see box 1). Where children are concerned, principle 8 of the 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child states that children shall have “the right to be among the first to receive protection and relief in all circumstances”. Furthermore, according to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have inalienable rights in all circumstances, including disaster situations, when they are most at risk, plus the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives (UNICEF, 2016). Thus, children’s participation and education in both sustainable development and disaster preparedness are key to reducing their vulnerability to disasters.

The Children’s Charter for Disaster Risk Reduction was developed in 2011 through consultations with more than 600 children in 21 countries of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. In the Charter, the children themselves identify five disaster response priorities: (i) schools must be safe and education must not be interrupted; (ii) child protection must be a priority before, during and after a disaster; (iii) children have the right to participate and to access the information they need; (iv) community infrastructure must be safe, and relief and reconstruction must help reduce future risk; and (v) disaster risk reduction must reach the most vulnerable.

Box 1

International agreements on disaster mitigation and action

One of the first international agreements was the Yokohama Strategy of 1994, which aimed to define guidelines on disaster prevention, disaster preparedness and mitigation. Subsequently, the Hyogo Framework for Action was adopted for the 2005-2015 period. This presented certain social policy recommendations to reduce risk factors, such as: (i) greater food security to improve communities’ hazard resilience; (ii) the strengthening of social protection mechanisms for vulnerable population groups, and psychosocial support programmes; (iii) the incorporation of disaster risk reduction measures in the recovery and rehabilitation process in a way that helps to improve long-term capacity; and (iv) the need to ensure that programmes for displaced persons do not increase their disaster risk and vulnerability. In turn, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, approved at the Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan in 2015, is intended to prevent new disasters and mitigate the effects of those that have already occurred through the integrated implementation of cultural, economic, environmental, educational, social, technological and institutional measures. This framework recognizes the leading, regulatory and coordination role played by governments, but recommends they engage with relevant stakeholders, including children and young people, as the latter are agents of change and should be given the space and modalities to contribute to disaster risk reduction. Finally, it is worth highlighting that Sustainable Development Goal 13 (“Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”) includes target 13.1, which is to “strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate related hazards and natural disasters in all countries”.

Source: Prepared by the authors on the basis of United Nations, “Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030”, 2015, and “Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Increasing the resilience of nations and communities in the face of disasters”, 2005.

4. Latin America and the Caribbean has begun to implement social protection initiatives to deal with disasters

Social development ministries and other governmental agencies engaging in social development in Latin America and the Caribbean have recently started linking social protection programmes and policies to the disaster risk management and climate change adaptation agenda. Social development institutions are developing disaster prevention and response mechanisms and endeavouring to coordinate their actions with other sectors. Through such endeavours, and with a long-term vision, attempts are being made to address the interdependencies between shocks of this type and people in situations of poverty and vulnerability. However, while international agreements are clear about the need to prioritize children’s rights and to encourage their participation when dealing with disasters, much work still has to be done in the region to implement priority assistance protocols for this collective. This is therefore a key challenge facing countries in the region.

Social protection programmes can be expected to support families and thereby reduce the vulnerability to disaster of their members, including children. Some social protection instruments that have been specifically used as a public response to emergencies and disasters are programmes that trigger extraordinary mechanisms or in-kind transfer mechanisms and public employment programmes following the official declaration of an emergency, plus support for the reconstruction of housing.

In the case of Argentina, the Ministry of Social Development aims to implement social protection at all stages of a disaster situation, acting before disasters (by increasing stocks of emergency materials, developing intervention protocols, providing training and forging alliances with social organizations), during them (by coordinating with local governments, making basic response resources available, contributing to reconstruction, using social security records to identify victims and providing support and a presence on the ground) and after them (by providing relief, tax benefits and social plans, among other things) (MDS Argentina, 2016). Similarly, Brazil has several government agencies that act before, during and after disasters within the framework of the National System of Civil Protection and Defence. Examples of preventive actions in this context include the Bolsa Verde (“Green Bag”) programme, coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment in collaboration with several other sectors, which pays families to carry out environmentally sustainable production activities, and the Agua para Todos (“Water for All”) programme, which promotes food security and the economic participation of populations subject to long periods of drought in the semi-arid region of the country. Additionally, the Unified Social Assistance System (SUAS) is responsible for providing social protection in public disasters and emergencies (Jannuzzi, 2016).

Texto destacado. Social protection for children

In the case of Ecuador, the Ministry for the Coordination of Social Development was responsible for managing social policy in the reconstruction phase after the April 2016 earthquake, seeking to restore people’s livelihoods and taking a rights-based approach. This was implemented in four stages: (i) the clean-up (damage assessment and creation of the Unified Register of Victims); (ii) the stabilization of livelihoods (rehabilitation of infrastructure and provision of monthly cash transfers such as lodging, rental and food vouchers); (iii) local recovery (capacity-building); and (iv) social reintegration and inclusive growth (good governance) (León, 2017; MCDS, 2016). In Mexico, the Secretariat of Social Development and the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources coordinate the components of the Temporary Employment Programme, the purpose of which is to promote the sustainable use of natural resources and implement actions whereby families and communities can adapt to climate change impacts, and to foster specific actions for the protection, conservation, restoration and sustainable use of natural resources.

Data-gathering tools are vital for identifying people and families affected by disasters and for determining what kind of local presence and support are to be provided by different State agencies to strengthen their resilience. One such tool is the Basic Emergency Register (FIBE) developed by the Ministry of Social Development in Chile to identify affected populations, record the extent of damage to their homes and property and prioritize the State’s response to their needs. Different georeferenced data are gathered for this register, including information on the age, sex and disability status of disaster victims (MDS Chile, 2016). Where prevention is concerned, special mention must be made of the Dominican Republic’s experience with the Index of Vulnerability to Climate Shocks (IVACC). Given certain socioeconomic conditions, this can be used in conjunction with the Unified System of Beneficiaries (SIUBEN) to calculate the vulnerability of households to hurricanes, storms and floods (Office of the Vice-President of the Dominican Republic, 2016).

The region has also established regulatory and institutional frameworks linking social policy implementation with disaster risk management, such as the Social Development and Protection Act in El Salvador and the Social Development Act, the Social Development and Population Policy and the Institutional Response Plan (Ministerial Agreement 82-2012) in Guatemala.

Despite these advances, certain challenges remain when it comes to coordinating social protection policy with other sectors in order to deal with disasters. In some instances, linkages occur only incidentally, and the rights and priorities of children and adolescents are often not explicitly mentioned (UNICEF, 2014).

Heterogeneity is the rule where institutions coordinating children’s affairs are concerned. In a number of countries, the highest authorities are the children’s councils organized by social ministries together with other private and civil society bodies. In such cases, it is a challenge to secure the leadership needed to coordinate the wide array of institutions represented in these councils, particularly when it comes to implementing comprehensive systems for the protection of children’s rights in line with recommendations enshrined in international law. In other countries, the main authority responsible for children’s affairs is the ministry of development or social inclusion or some other ministry. The coordination challenge is different in this case as it depends on the capacity of the institutions or secretariats concerned and the ministry to which they are attached to coordinate and mobilize the resources and programmes of other agencies that are not under their sectoral jurisdiction (ECLAC, 2017).

5. Conclusions

In conclusion, it is evident that social protection policies and programmes have great potential for reducing children’s vulnerability to disasters. However, certain challenges need to be addressed for this potential to be realized. One key challenge is to increase intersectoral and inter-institutional management and coordination efforts to address the vulnerabilities of the child population in the face of disasters, most particularly through the engagement of national authorities responsible for children’s affairs.

It is also essential to increase the availability of quantitative and qualitative data with disaggregated information on the child population vulnerable to disasters and on children who have suffered the effects of these. There is likewise a need to include children’s experiences of disasters in both policymaking and programming through their active participation as subjects of rights (UNICEF, 2016).

The promotion of children’s rights must take account of their specific vulnerabilities and risks. Accordingly, institutions dealing with matters affecting children need to strive to give greater consistency and prominence to the areas for which they are responsible, including efforts to coordinate social protection systems and disaster management before, during and after such events.


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