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Keeping children safe in Kashmir

In Jammu and Kashmir, the north Indian state known for its long history of conflict and violence, we are currently implementing a massive child protection programme covering 6 districts and 144 villages. A key part of this is the establishment of Child Friendly Spaces in all project villages.

I arrived here three weeks ago to train all 144 community workers and make the child friendly spaces operational as soon as possible.

Child Friendly Spaces are widely used in emergency contexts to provide children with the chance to play safely with children and learn. It also provides an opportunity for staff running the spaces to identify vulnerable children in need of extra care and protection. In Kashmir, the purpose of the spaces is to return some sense of normality to the lives of children growing up amidst the protracted conflict, who might also be experiencing violence, neglect, a lack of education and gender discrimination on a daily basis.

In my first week I traveled to the Kashmiri districts to train the (female) community workers who have been recruited to organise activities for children in their own village. On the first day I meet a group of 24 young women, all wearing colourful scarfs, some wearing a niqaab, so that I could only see their eyes. For the occasion I’m wearing a phiren, a traditional Kashmiri dress that has many similarities of the long wide coat of a wizard.

Thirty minutes after I start the workshop, one of the participants asks me: What does ‘CFS’ stand for? It becomes clear that these women didn’t receive any orientation from our partner organisation, and thus they don’t know anything about the project or even what a Child Friendly Space is. Instead of talking about CFS guidelines and management, I start with explaining the work of Save the Children and what a Child Friendly Space is.

The next day, in another district, I start the workshop asking the girls (some as young as 16 are hired for this job) how they would describe a Child Friendly Space. In less than one minute they come up with all aspects of a CFS, displaying great interest in learning more about their exciting new job. Some participants are so passionate about their new role to improve the well-being of children, that their fierceness is almost intimidating.

The conflict is deeply rooted in the identity of people in Kashmir, and any topic related to it brings out emotional reactions. In the lunch break the men go to the mosque for Friday prayers.

I use my time alone with the women to teach them some creative exercises and games that they can do in the CFS. In spite of language barriers, I manage to explain everything, and they teach me some Kashmiri dances, songs and games. We have great fun – without the men present I saw a totally different group of young, strong and enthusiastic women.

During these trainings I learn a lot from the participants, not in the least because they have experienced these issues themselves. At the end of the workshops I feel satisfied and happy. I can’t wait to see the child friendly spaces when they are fully functioning.

Then I receive sad news from one of our project villages. Last night a 9-year old boy stepped on a land mine and lost his leg. His village is located on the Indian-Pakistani border where many mines have been placed during the ongoing conflict. On a regular basis these accidents happen due to ‘lost’ mines near villages and farmland.

Despite this, the government states that the border area is ‘clear’. The news comes to us through the local Child Protection Committee, an active local support group for children’s welfare, which was established by Save the Children four years ago.

They directly contacted our partner organisation with a plea for more advocacy on border security and protection of children living in these mine fields. This clearly brings home the importance of the protection work Save the Children and its partners are carrying out in this region.

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