China is home to almost 19% of the world’s population and almost 13% (271 million children) of the global child population. Despite China’s rapid economic development and progress in alleviating poverty, many children in poor communities, including those in remote or ethnic-inhabited areas, lack access to quality child protection and early childhood development services.
Guigang, a prefecture in South China’s Guangxi, is one such region, with a large population of ethnic Zhuang people. The upcoming IWitness visit will take the team to three villages in Guigang, where UNICEF-assisted Child Friendly Spaces with funding from the IKEA Foundation, are changing the lives of children and their families.
Child Friendly Spaces are widely used in emergencies as a first response to children’s needs and an entry point for working with affected communities. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, UNICEF worked with our local government partner in setting up spaces for children in disaster-affected areas to not only provide a safe space for children but also deliver services such as play, recreational activities and counselling to children and their families.
Over the years, the model has transformed to a community-based child protection mechanism in non-emergency settings, bridging gaps in child welfare and protection services. It has since been adopted by the Government of China as a good way to protect children and is being replicated across the country to reach many more children.
Before joining UNICEF China, I had only seen Child Friendly Spaces in emergency settings in Sudan and Kenya, when I worked for UNHCR as senior advisor for refugee children. It was not difficult to see that the Child Friendly Space provided the children with a space where they could enjoy themselves and be away from the harsh day-to-day life in a camp. It’s interesting to see how China has used this concept in a non-emergency setting.
Over the past few years, I have visited several UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Spaces in both rural and urban communities in China. In the colourfully decorated Child Friendly Spaces in Guigang, various engaging activities are provided to children, such as games, psychosocial support counselling and art workshops, as well as sex education lessons, still a taboo topic in China. Many of the village girls and boys attending these lessons are left behind by their parents who have migrated to cities for better paying jobs. They are taught about the physical changes that happen around puberty, about menstruation and how to protect themselves from sexual abuse. The staff at the Child-Friendly Spaces also offer support to caregivers on child rearing and positive parenting.
It is a joy to see the commitment of the staff at the Child Friendly Spaces, as well as the staff from our partners, the local Working Committee on Children and Women and Women’s Federation, who support the initiative. It is also wonderful to see the parents and grandparents actively participating in activities with their children and grandchildren. But the most satisfying part of my visits has been watching the children having fun, interacting with each other and enjoying themselves and knowing that there is a place where children can go to receive support for themselves and for their families.
Thanks to the generous support from the IKEA Foundation, through the ‘Spaces for Kids to be Kids’ pilot programme, UNICEF and our partner the National Working Committee on Children and Women are working to expand the Child Friendly Spaces model to reach more children and ensure its quality, and to introduce an innovative model of Integrated Child Friendly Development Centres to bring early childhood development and child protection services into one place.
To encourage child participation, each Child Friendly Space has established a Children’s Committee that consists of only children to ensure that their voices are heard and reflected in the planning and management of the space. The Child Friendly Spaces also organise awareness-raising and information sharing activities with children, caregivers and other community members on a regular basis. Topics include child rights, child protection, positive parenting and psychosocial support. At the end of 2017, after the first year of implementation, we already reached 36,365 children and 33,984 caregivers, helping them to access improved services and activities.
I hope this IWitness visit will give the team an insight into the difficulties children face in rural China but also the wonderful opportunities that Child Friendly Spaces can create for them by providing a safe, protective and stimulating environment.