The muffled cries that trail climate disasters

Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen

Victim: “Even when I pleaded with him to stop, he continued raping me.”

Interviewer: “Did you tell anyone what had happened?”

Victim: “I told my sister but we didn’t tell my mother right away because she kept reminding us that we had to be grateful because he (the perpetrator) had given us shelter while our house was completely destroyed.”

Located in the centre of the Hurricane belt, it is well known that Dominica is among the most climate-vulnerable islands in the Caribbean Region and projections suggest that the risks are likely to intensify in the coming years. This forecast means that climate-related hazards will pose a continued threat to the safety of children and the country’s ability to provide the necessary social protection to children and their families.

When Hurricane Maria struck Dominica in 2017, Elle was a 14-year-old girl. She was an average student attending secondary school in the west coast of the island while her younger sister was 11 years old. Their family was one of the 90 percent of the population which was directly affected by the climate disaster. With the desire to move out of the temporary shelter, Elle and her family opted to stay with an extended family while they sought housing assistance. According to UNICEF, a staggering 19,800 Dominican children were hugely impacted by this hurricane.

Years after the incident, Elle recounts her story.

Although child abuse has always been a concern, climate disasters such as Hurricane Maria increase the vulnerability of children to an unmanageable and regrettable rate. For instance, post Hurricane Maria, the Head of the Child Abuse Prevention Unit of the Social Welfare Division of Dominica, Jemma Azille-Lewis, reported an increase in reported cases of incest. Azille-Lewis explained that displacement caused by the hurricane could have influenced this increase as well as other types of child sexual abuse. As to the capability of Social Services to respond to these increased cases, an educator who served as a member of the emergency response in Elle’s rural community, noted that she felt that the agency lacked the human resources to provide psychosocial/therapeutic support to children who experienced sexual abuse during this period. Other concerns raised were the “prolonged legal process, the lack of a family court as well as the limited number of social welfare officers to investigate these cases”.

Dominica’s social welfare system which was already underfunded before Hurricane Maria was further saturated with the surge in child abuse cases, leaving some children underserved and more families losing hope in the system. This was evident in Elle’s mother’s response as to why the case was never reported. She said, “but there was nothing the welfare and police would do. We didn’t even have food. You think the priority was on child abuse?”

Stories like Elle’s underscore the multiplier impact of climate disasters on children and their families. Contributing factors such as socio-economic status are worsened by these impacts. Reasons for not reporting sex crimes include the fear of losing the main breadwinner, who in some cases, are the perpetrator.

Coordinator of the East Dominica Children’s Federation, Velma Moses-Joseph, states that based on the magnitude of the climate disaster, more individuals find themselves in vulnerable situations and are prone to abuse. Moses-Joseph said, “Children living with friends can be deprived of food. Privacy also becomes a problem in those makeshift bathrooms making girls more exposed to abuse. Even a small act such as going to get water or taking a bath in the river in rural communities where running water was disrupted-makes girls and young women vulnerable to sexual abuse.”

Moses-Joseph says that methods to address these concerns include mitigating families’ vulnerability by raising awareness of climate change and its hidden impacts such as child abuse. She states that climate funding must trickle down to NGOs which operate in the rural communities where more vulnerable families are located. Moses-Joseph calls for support for the NGOs so that families can be empowered with non-traditional or alternative livelihood options whilst being engaged in climate mitigation and adaptation activities.

Traditionally, climate funding is not focused on child protection despite UNICEF’s call on the international community to “prioritize climate finance investment in child-sensitive, climate-resilient social services – such as social protection schemes”. In the report dubbed ‘Impact of Climate Change on Children’, UNICEF further implored countries to transform the Glasgow work programme at COP 26 into action to “ensure clear protection and prioritisation of children in the finalisation of the General Comment and to root it in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.” The lack of funding for the protection of children in the climate change discourse especially in the face of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which underpins the importance of every child being protected from violence and exploitation is regrettable.

The only climate-funded project aimed at building climate resilience in children was the “Strong Bodies, Strong Minds 2-year Pilot Project” which was monitored by the Climate Resilience Execution Agency for Dominica (CREAD). The social services also lead the Return to Happiness Program which helped children to debrief after the disaster. Limited funding for child protection and the lack of pledges from major carbon emitters to accelerate the decarbonisation efforts at the COP 26 means that negative implications for children in climate disaster-prone states like Dominica will likely continue.

An ideal climate-funded program which protects children should be holistic and encompass (1) Children’s activities; (2) Parent Involvement; (3) Community Participation (4) Economic Support (5) Engagement of Social Welfare and the legal arm. Such projects should aim at preventing child abuse and promoting child protection by creating a supportive community where residents share a collective responsibility to protect children from harm. The challenge, however, is how to implement a community strategy that strikes the appropriate balance between individual responsibility and public investment.

Considering the creation of the new Loss and Damage Climate Fund created for developing countries, it is hoped that SIDS like Dominica will be able to access climate finance which will help address constraints such as the limited resources for NGOs and the social welfare division. In the quest to become a climate resilient country, Dominica must ensure that key climate adaptive strategies encompass the creation of an environment which is collectively engaged in protecting and supporting children post-climate disasters.

For privacy reasons, the name of the interviewee has been kept anonymous.

This article was published with the support of the Climate Trackers Journalism Fellowship and the Open Society.

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