As climate change and natural disasters hit human populations increasingly and more severely, it is imperative to better understand the social impact and impact on health and wellbeing. A study published today in BMC Public Health makes recommendations for improving the design of violence prevention and for adapting interventions to natural disaster environments. The author Ilan Cerna-Turoff explains the importance of his research in this blog.

We estimate that over 3% of the world’s population will need humanitarian aid in 2020. With soaring temperatures and changing weather patterns, one can only imagine how many people and financial resources would be required to provide services if we continue unabated on this currently dangerous path. We do not have precise figures, but we believe that the destruction of formal structures and social safety nets during natural disasters is likely to lead to an increase in violence against children.

When disaster strikes, we often don’t have time to wonder how and why violence occurs. We create responsive and immediate research that focuses on enumerating children at highest risk of violence or key concerns of affected communities. However, if we do not fully understand what aspects of the disaster lead to violence, how can we prevent it?

This question has crossed my mind many times over the years, as I’ve spent most of a decade researching child protection violations in humanitarian emergencies. Those who work in disaster relief and humanitarian emergencies are guided by the premise that we are not causing harm, and therefore our interventions are necessary and justified. Appropriate research is process oriented to improve the existing service delivery. I have often wondered if we could create a stronger approach to public health that targets the upstream drivers of violence.

Our systematic review published in BMC Public Health collects information on possible pathways between natural disasters and violence against children in order to suggest points of intervention. We have identified five avenues to violence:

  1. Environmental changes in supervision, accompaniment and separation of children
  2. Transgression of social norms in behavior after a disaster
  3. Economic stress
  4. Dealing with stress negatively
  5. Insecure housing and living conditions.

The results have three main implications for action. While there are likely to be a greater number of avenues, given the scarcity of evidence, we can safely say that intervening in any of these aspects of the post-disaster environment would help prevent violence. Violence prevention programs should structure interventions that target these five pathways after natural disasters.

We have a wealth of evidence-based interventions that can be used; for example, SASA! (means “now” in Swahili) for changing social norms, Parents make the difference for positive parenting and Cure violence to create safe environments. Global standards in the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Aid (CPMS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) INSPIRE: Seven Strategies to End Violence Against Children should be adhered to during construction work.

Second, we should leverage the knowledge and resilience of communities that are often cyclical with natural disasters. We found that some families and communities were able to protect children from violence after natural disasters, particularly through the creation of new monitoring and supervision structures. Natural disasters can be unique to armed conflict in that community trust is more intact.

We should look for indigenous knowledge that supports the local response. These strategies are likely to be effective, easier to stimulate than external interventions, and support local response efforts. We urgently recommend a stronger documentation and evaluation of positive behavior after natural disasters, which serve to prevent violence.

Third, multi-pronged approaches to violence prevention are essential. The five outlined paths individually lead to violence, but do not act in isolation. Programming must be created to combat multiple paths.

For example, suppose a service provider creates a livelihood program to address the economic stress path to violence. To ensure that the money is used for family needs, unconditional cash transfers are made to the female heads of household. Violence against women and children can still occur in societies where gender norms for women as breadwinners are exceeded. Humanitarian workers can do more harm than good if they do not combine livelihood interventions with changes in social norms.

The intervention to secure a livelihood also does not alleviate other negative coping behaviors. Violence against children can still occur if female caregivers do not receive parenting programs and mental health support to manage the acute and persistent stress of the natural disaster.

Without addressing all avenues, violence against children is likely to continue. Individual agencies should design comprehensive interventions addressing multiple avenues to violence, and humanitarian coordination mechanisms can ensure that there are no gaps in government service.

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