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Interview with UNICEF country representative, Dr Omar Abdi

[Pakistan] UNICEF country representative to Pakistan, Dr Omar Abdi at his office in Islamabad. [Date picture taken: 10/25/2005]
David Swanson/IRIN
UNICEF country representative to Pakistan, Dr Omar Abdi
At least half of the 86,000 people known to have died in October's devastating quake in northern Pakistan were children. In an interview with IRIN, country representative for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Pakistan, Dr Omar Abdi, highlighted the impact the disaster has had on children and some of the many challenges the agency now faces in addressing them. According to the UN children's agency, as many as 4 million people have been affected by the 8 October earthquake and UNICEF working hard to ensure that people in tented encampments and villages have access to clean water and proper sanitation. In these conditions the threat of disease is never far away and UNICEF is watching for it. QUESTION: How would you describe the plight of children living in Pakistan's quake-affected region? ANSWER: The children have been affected tremendously. A number of children, first of all, died. We estimate that half of the death casualties were children, but many more were injured. They have also been affected emotionally. Those that were going to school now find that there are no schools. They are at risk of diseases. As for the impact on children, it's significant. Q: Do you have any facts and figures on the number of children affected and where? A: Well the data hasn't been registered yet. But half of the population of Pakistan is under 18 so we would estimate out of those people who have died, half of them are children. There are some figures from local government that the number of students who have died in schools is estimated to be around 17,000 in both regions [North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistan-administered Kashmir]. This is a number we got from local governments. Q: Many of the quake's casualties were actually women and children. Why is that? A: Firstly, schools were open at the time so kids were in the school. Secondly, women were at home. As you know, women in these places do not work outside the home so that could be one reason. Q: With regard to the quake-affected area, what are UNICEF's primary concerns at the moment and why? A: We're concerned about four areas. Firstly are the areas of health and nutrition for children because of the breakdown of the health infrastructure and health system. Now that children are in shelters and camps, they are susceptible to diseases such as diarrhoea because there is no good water or sanitation. They're susceptible to measles and other diseases because of the crowdedness and low level of routine immunisation in that area before the earthquake. That's a major concern. Another concern that we have is the protection of children. In a situation like this, children are at risk if they are not accompanied or their parents have died. They are susceptible to being kidnapped or abused or exploited. So the protection of children is another concern that we have. And finally, education is a concern because most of the schools have collapsed. Children and some of the teachers have died, while others have left, so there's no schooling. Q: Education took a devastating blow in this quake. Can you update us on the latest facts and figures? A: The database is still incomplete. As you know, some of the areas have not yet been reached by vehicles. They're getting things dropped by air. So the total figure is not yet clear. We're still collecting data. But the National Human Development Commission, for example, that is doing a survey in Mansehra, reports that 700 out of 7,000 teachers have died in Mansehra district alone. We get information that nearly 80 percent of the schools and health centres have collapsed. It was mostly public buildings that were impacted as was the case in Muzaffarabad; health centres and schools have suffered a lot in this catastrophe. Q: Regarding UNICEF's activities, how will you be addressing some of this? A: In terms of health, we will be looking at three major things. One, to immunise all children in the affected area between the ages of six months and 15 years against measles and give them vitamin A - about 4 million of them in North West Frontier Province and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Vitamin A capsules help protect them from disease. That is one. The second thing that we want to do is revitalise the primary healthcare system. Until now, the emphasis has been on field hospitals because that is where the injured people were being brought. Now is the time to revitalise the primary health centres, to reach 1 million people with primary healthcare. The third area is to establish therapeutic feeding and supplementary feeding for malnourished children. In the area of water, we want to provide water for 1.7 million people both in camps and in urban centres that have been affected. In the area of protection, we want to register all children and to make sure that they are protected from abuse and exploitation. That we know every child who is not accompanied, we trace their families, we make sure that they are reunited with their families and if they don't have any family or extended family, we make sure that the state looks after them until a solution is found. In the case of education, we want to start some form of schooling. We've seen tent schools in some of the camps, that's what we want to do in all of the areas. It will take at least two or three years before permanent structures are built, but we don't want children to be out of school for that period of time. So getting tent schools, getting school in a box - that is a box containing all the supplies for a classroom or one teacher needs. Getting teachers back to work. And finally, because of the trauma and emotional stress that both children and teachers have gone through, we [will] start a programme of psycho-social support counselling that would help them address their emotional stress. Q: Given what you just said about psycho-social counselling, can you elaborate a bit more on what impact this quake will have on children? A: Well certainly it will have an impact. Some of them will be impacted severely because some have lost either siblings or parents. Some have been injured themselves and been pulled out from the rubble. Those will of course have long memories and it will take time for them to recover. But most of the other children recover quickly and you have seen already that they have started smiling, starting to get back to normalcy. But what would help them would be to bring them into classrooms with other children and places where they can talk and draw on their own experiences. That would help them recover quickly. Q: You mentioned the word normalcy. Given the sheer scale of this disaster, have you got any idea how long it's going to take before we see anything resembling normalcy here? A: If you are thinking about structures being rebuilt, that will take a long time. But for them to come back together with other children and to play, to have classrooms for education again, that is what we want to start quickly. The longer it takes for them, the bigger the impact of the trauma will be. The sooner we start some form of normalcy the better. It won't be as normal as it was - but at least it will get them back together with children, to have their friends again, as well as ensure that they have the basic things that they need, including proper clothing, that they have water and sanitation, health, food – things that will help them get back to normalcy. Q: With many mothers killed in the quake, undoubtedly we will see more single parent-headed households. What specific challenges does this bring? A: One is when the breadwinner in the family has been lost, which puts the whole family in jeopardy. The government will have to find a way to support those families that have lost the income earner in the family. In the case where mothers have been lost, you will now have fathers that will have to cater to young children and that will still require them to stay around and perhaps not work. The advantage in places like Pakistan, given the culture and traditions, extended families look after children, which will help. If there wasn’t a mother around, there might be an aunt or grandmother. If a father is not there, there might be a brother to take care of the child. So we're hoping that the impact would not be as severe as where such traditions and extended family system did not exist. Q: With winter fast approaching, how confident are you that children in need will have their needs met? A: This is a major concern, especially for those children who are up in the mountains. We’re hoping that many people will come down to the valleys where they can get help in the camp. For those children that we can reach, we plan on providing a warm clothing kit, containing sweaters, jackets and boots, which we will be distributing before the end of November. But for those people who can only be reached by air, [provisions] will be dropped in communities by helicopters and there is no guarantee that every child will get [what they need]. That is a concern. We hope that they will cope. We've heard reports that families have started to rebuild at least one room in their house so that they can protect themselves from the cold. But that's a major concern that we have - those children who are up in the mountains. Q: Donors have yet to respond to the United Nations Flash Appeal for survivors of this quake. Why do you think that is so and what do you think donors should know - specifically about the status of children in the area? A: My sense is perhaps donors do not see the urgency of this emergency. I'm confident that, at least for UNICEF, we will get what we requested. We now have up to 50 percent of what we requested in the revised appeal, or over US $40 million. And many of the national committees for UNICEF in industrialised countries, which raise money for UNICEF, particularly in emergencies, have already started campaigns to mobilise funding for the emergency. With Christmas and the giving season, we are hopeful and optimistic that a significant amount more will be raised. I'm confident that the $90 million we requested will be received.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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