Listening to Children: An Interview with Martin Hayes

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Posted on 2/2/2011
 Mount Merapi, Indonesia
 Two Indonesian young boys in temporary shelter.
 Indonesian mother and infant.

As ChildFund’s Child Protection Specialist, Martin Hayes’s job is to coordinate child protection programming throughout our program areas. Emergencies such as natural disasters tend to multiply the vulnerability of children living in extreme poverty, putting them at risk for exploitation, abuse, abduction or worse.

Hayes is often called to these areas to provide technical expertise in the overall emergency response — he has done so in Afghanistan; in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami; in Kenya during the 2008 post-election violence; in Eastern Chad during the refugee crisis and civil conflict; and in many other places.

Last fall he traveled to Indonesia, following Mount Merapi’s three eruptions during late October and early November that resulted in thousands of residents relocating temporarily to shelters, host communities and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

Because ChildFund places children’s experience at the center of its work, part of Hayes’s job is to ensure that ChildFund’s responses are attuned to that experience. That means listening to children. But sometimes the best efforts to do so don’t quite work out.

ChildFund: What did you do while in Indonesia?
Hayes: I had the chance to visit a number of IDP camps, as well as affected communities where residents were beginning to return. Since ChildFund’s mission is to promote the development and protection of children, I thought it was important to speak with children to understand their situations and how ChildFund could best intervene.

Why speak to children in those situations?
Actually, emergencies are often used as an excuse for not promoting both adult and child participation in program development and implementation. Humanitarian workers often feel off the hook from having to involve community members because of the urgency of the situation, and this feeling is even greater when it comes to involving children. However, involving children and adults in an emergency response in a meaningful way is critical for ensuring the interventions are relevant, and for addressing the chronic underlying vulnerabilities of affected children.

So how did you do that?
My first stop was a soccer stadium temporarily housing thousands of IDPs. Families were living on mats on the floors in the hallways of the stadium, with the few possessions that they had managed to bring with them. ChildFund had claimed some space in one of the hallways on the first floor to set up a center with games and art supplies for children to find some refuge from the crowded halls. Since our scheduled tour had multiple stops in the same day, time constraints only allowed us to talk with people for about an hour.

Even though your time was limited, you still spoke to young people?
I tried! I first interviewed ChildFund staff working at the center and then asked if I could speak with some of the children. The staff member pulled aside an 8-year-old girl who frequently attended the center. I hoped to find out about her experience of the center, what was missing, if anything, and what she hoped to do next.

How did that go?
Not well! She seemed very scared and clung to one of the volunteers as I asked her questions. It took three or four repetitions of each question and the translator suggesting a possible answer before she would whisper yes or no into the volunteer’s ear. I also talked with a 10-year-old boy, with similar results. In fact, this was also my experience in the subsequent days speaking with children in villages where residents were just starting to return. Children were extremely shy, turning their heads to the ground and unable to utter more than just a few words.

Understandable — they’d been through a lot, and you also were new to them. Did you have any success?
On my third day in one of the villages, I saw four young people, between 12 and 18 years old, and asked them if we could all sit down for a few minutes to talk. I asked them about their experiences and how they felt to be back in the village. They were much less shy and more forthcoming. But when it came to questions about their participation in community decision-making — a topic I wanted to learn more about for strengthening the emergency response — they seemed to be at a loss. Despite the very competent translator, they had difficulty understanding what I was talking about because they apparently never had opportunities to participate in community-based structures or meetings. In many communities where ChildFund works, child- and youth-led organizations provide opportunities for young people to participate in public decision-making. But these seemed to be absent in the communities that I visited near Mount Merapi. It takes practice to be able to communicate effectively and to ensure your ideas are heard. In some places, children never get that practice.

What would you do next time, knowing what you now know?
In retrospect, investing a little more time in the process would have been far more beneficial than trying to cover many sites and communities. Covering multiple locations with only about an hour or two in each location required us to use interviews and focus group discussions with children, which were, for the most part, not very effective.

Any tools or methods that you have found particularly useful in helping children express themselves more easily?
ChildFund has developed a Child- and Youth-Friendly Participatory Action Research Toolkit. The kit has numerous exercises to choose from that are designed to be animated and fun but effective in helping children to think about and communicate their experiences, prioritize and analyze issues, and plan responses. I’ve successfully field-tested these tools in numerous locations with boys and girls of different age groups. In fact, in Liberia, ChildFund has a project involving children as young as 5 years old using these tools on a longer-term basis, to help them bring to light issues and challenges in their environment.

Each emergency situation is different, Hayes acknowledges. Some situations require ChildFund and its staff to return to the basics, working with communities not only to recover from disasters but also to organize and work together effectively to address issues and involve young people. That’s when children start talking.