Nandini, a 3-year old toddler, lost her mother in the tsunami and now her father Ellamparai Selvan, a fisherman, relies on the UNICEF-supported day care centre to look after her when he goes out searching for work.
Siruthur Village, Vailinkanni Taluk, Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu, India
Nandini is all of three years old, barely able to speak, but her deep black eyes tell the sad story of having lost her mother Mrs. Anjumal, a fisher woman, to the devastating tsunami on 26 December. Nandini will never get her mother back, but the 35 other children near her age in the relief camp are playing with her at the child care center and helping her cope with the tragedy.
Living in the temporary shelter made of corrugated sheets provided by the government, her father Ellamprai Selvan a fisherman finds it difficult to look after Nandini, especially during the day, when he goes out looking for work. It is not easy for Selvan, but UNICEF is supporting a program to establish child care centers to help parents look after their children in these difficult circumstances. Locally called the Aanganwadi Program, this Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) has been operational since 1975, but has been embraced with new vigor by the current administration.
In the aftermath of the tsunami, UNICEF has ensured that each temporary shelter has a dedicated hut for the delivery of ICDS services. The centers help ensure that toddlers are not left to fend for themselves as parents set about picking up pieces of their shattered lives. In these huts children are provided a caring environment when they come in early morning, a balanced meal at mid-day and engaged in fun and games by local women trained at looking after the children’s needs.
Kids enjoying their meal in the day care centres
`Vulnerable children have to be protected in the aftermath of the tsunami’ says Dr. Prakash Gurnani, health and nutrition officer at the Chennai office of UNICEF. He adds that in the next two months UNICEF intends to spend over US$ 550, 000 to bolster this `vital activity’. In all 351 such child care centers are being set up in the worst affected regions and they will be equipped with toys, educational material, raw material for the food, kitchen vessels, clean water and above all a trained work force to take care of the children.
In a major endeavor UNICEF has trained over 2000 local people to look after the children at these centers. According to Mrs. Srilata Venkatalakshmi, Project Officer, Social Policy, UNICEF, Chennai this was the first major participatory activity undertaken in the post-tsunami scenario to ensure the social welfare of children. She adds the working principle has been `not just to do support activities for the people, but to do it with them’ as she feels this is the only viable long term model. Her beliefs are borne out at the Siruthur village camp, which now has 272 temporary huts to provide housing for this village of 3000 people that lost 194 people in the tsunami. In this village, Rajeshwari, herself a survivor of the tsunami, actively looks after the 35 toddlers who constantly call for her attention shouting `teacher-teacher’.
Rajeshwari engages the kids in singing songs, playing games and also cooks their mid-day meal, a much relished porridge of rice and lentils supplemented by a boiled egg once every week. The chief of administration in this district Mr. J. Radhakrishnan also called the District Collector says high on his priority is to ensure that children come out of the trauma they have faced and not suffer any psychosocial or developmental setbacks. As an immediate measure he says `in consultation with UNICEF, the meal supplement at these ICDS sites has been doubled’. Today as a special measure children coming to the Aaganwadis in the tsunami affected regions are also being provided a meal in the late afternoons, this according to Radhakrishnan helps reduce the burden on the families that are still coming to terms with the disaster.
For Nandini, the comfort of her mother’s lap may never come again but as Radhakrishnan says `providing a home away from home for the tsunami affected children’ is the goal we are trying to achieve against many odds.