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How to protect children in a disaster response

Our must-read tips for all humanitarian aid workers.

Thursday June 16, 2016

Relief distributions in San Isidro
Maricel and her daughter Joy line up to collect iron sheets to replace their roof, destroyed during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Noel Celis

When people are packed into evacuation centres after a cyclone, how do you keep children safe? When food rations are handed out, will children get to eat what they receive? Are workers ready to support children who have survived abuse and exploitation? 

Australian Red Cross has released a series of child protection guidance notes for aid workers responding to disasters and crises. 

"It's no surprise that children are among the most vulnerable when a disaster strikes," says Jess Letch, Response Manager at Australian Red Cross. 

"They may lose parents or become separated from their families; be at risk of abuse and exploitation; or experience abuse or neglect in the aftermath. Depending on the nature of the crisis and where it hits, they may also be at risk of child labour, trafficking, disease or recruitment into armed groups."  

The Red Cross guidance notes offer practical tips on child protection across different disaster response scenarios.  They draw from the internationally-accepted Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Emergencies.

When distributing relief supplies:

  • Ensure that child-headed households and unaccompanied children are given ration cards in their own names.
  • Ensure that children have appropriate footwear and that girls have sanitary and hygiene products.
  • Set up separate lines at distributions so that the most vulnerable people are helped first. Involve girls and boys in the design of distribution systems.  

When providing health services:

  • Identify paediatricians and health workers specialised in working with children.
  •  Develop child-friendly procedures for admitting, treating and discharging children.
  • Put in place safe and accessible ways to support children who have survived abuse or exploitation.
  • Create strategies for children's survival; with special attention to the health needs of children under five. This may include vaccinations, promotion of breastfeeding and treatment of diarrhoea.  

When organising emergency shelter:

  • Make sure that shelter options support and encourage families to stay together.
  • Ensure that personnel working in shelters look out for unaccompanied and separated children, and those at risk of abuse or exploitation.
  • Identify adequate collective spaces for children to play, and encourage informal education and cultural activities.  

When providing water and sanitation facilities:

  • Ensure that water distribution points, toilets and bathing facilities offer security and privacy.
  • Support the community in ensuring that children are not forced to miss school to collect water; that they do not have to walk unreasonable distances to collect water; and that water containers are suitable for their age and size.
  • Help children understand the importance of hygiene: use messages that offer children a sense of control and ability to adapt to their circumstances.


While Jess recommends drawing on the expertise of child protection specialists, she says that child protection is the responsibility of everyone in a crisis response team.  

"Child protection means much more than signing a policy or paying lip service to a principle," she explains. "It means taking a second look at everything you do in the field, to avoid putting vulnerable children at further risk.  

"It's our job to ensure dignity, access, participation and safety for everyone using our services."  

Read our guidance notes for aid workers: 
Child protection in relief distributions (PDF) 
Child protection in the health sector (PDF) 
Child protection in shelter (PDF) 
Child protection in WASH (PDF)  

Podcast: How Aid Works 
The episodes 'Modern Family: Kathmandu' and 'Kids' explore child protection in the wake of the Nepal earthquake.