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The invisible scars of disaster: helping Nepal’s children heal

Imagine you are going about your daily routine when disaster strikes. A wave of emotions might grip you, from shock and confusion to panic and fear. The terror of a disaster can be difficult to comprehend, even for an adult. Now imagine how heightened these feelings would be for a child.

This scenario was all too real for the people and children affected by the massive earthquake that devastated Nepal on April 25. It was a day like any other, until a 7.8 magnitude quake – the largest to hit the country in 80 years* – turned millions of lives upside down.

“I was really frightened, thinking that everything and everyone around me was going to die. The ground was shaking all around … it made such a loud noise,” shared 10 year-old Asmita.

Many witnessed traumatic scenes that will not be soon forgotten – leaving traces of the disaster scarred upon the psyche of millions of children and families.

“I was overwhelmed by what I saw,” says Urmila, 23, recounting that fateful day. “Monuments had toppled to the ground and I could see people injured and dying. When I close my eyes I dream about what happened. I am haunted by it and am sure others are too.”

A reoccurring nightmare
Three young Nepalese girls.

“When you live through a disaster, there is a limit to what your mind can take,” warns Dr. Krishnan. “Psychological suffering manifests instantly and often remains for a long time.”

More than 30 aftershocks followed the initial disaster – some reaching as high as 6.7 on the Richter scale – shrouding the country in a thick cloud of uncertainty and fear.

“Aftershocks take a heavy toll on minds of the survivors, especially small children,” explains Dr. Unni Krishnan, Head of Plan International’s Disaster Preparedness and Response team. “For some it is an ongoing nightmare.”

Then, on May 12 – just over two weeks after the initial earthquake – yet another huge quake (7.3-magnitude) struck Nepal, once more putting people at risk psychologically, as well as physically.

The earthquakes’ destruction was swift and widespread. Children looked on as the basic threads of their lives – homes, schools, their family life and sense of security – unraveled around them.

Invisible – but critical – needs

Since the first earthquake on April 25, over 8,000 lives have been claimed, 17,000 are reported injured and roughly 8 million have been left in need of humanitarian assistance. But not all the effects of disasters and the needs of those affected are tangible or visible.

Many children have been orphaned and left vulnerable, having lost parents and loved ones to the quakes. Entire homes have been reduced to rubble, forcing families to sleep in the open, exposed to the elements. And new worries and concerns have emerged for children, including:

  • Safety and protection:"At night, we were unable to sleep as we feared constant aftershocks,” says an adolescent girl living in a temporary camp area in Kathmandu. “All around me I could see young girls worried about their safety as they had to sleep amongst strangers.”
  • Livelihood and security:“I worried about where we would go and what we would be able to eat,” confided one boy, immediately following the first quake
  • Education and aspirations:“I miss going to school and studying with my friends,” says a 10-year-old girl from rural Nepal, just days after the quake. “I want to study for my future but now there is no more school so I’m not sure what to do.”

While Plan continues to meet the urgent physical needs of the people of Nepal by distributing food and water kits and emergency shelter materials, we are also placing great importance on supporting the needs that are less apparent: like the need for psychological, emotional, and educational support for children.

Plan has set up 6 Child Friendly Spaces (CFS), with 29 more on the way and a total goal of 100. These spaces give children a protected, safe and comfortable environment where they can play, learn and socialize.

Children do a conga line at a Plan Child Friendly Space.

“It is helping me to forget the horrible situation I have been through,” says Ajay, 11, in regards to a Plan CFS. “It’s wonderful, I love to come here and play with my friends,” adds his brother Mabish, 8. Though it is unlikely that affected children will ever forget the quakes, they now have the chance to heal and once again simply be children.

In addition to Child Friendly Spaces, Plan is also establishing temporary learning spaces and distributing school supplies so that children can continue their educations and resume a sense of normalcy to help cope with new realities and challenges that lie ahead.

“Education is a shock absorber,” says Dr. Krishnan.

Brighter today for better tomorrows

At Plan, children are at the heart of what we do. And even though they are the most affected and vulnerable within emergencies, they are far from victims. The children of Nepal have shown their true courage and resiliency in the face of this horrible disaster and now, they deserve to be included in the recovery process.

A young boy from Nepal smiles.

Together, we’re helping brighten today, and tomorrows, for the children of Nepal.

“When the community mobilizes around the future of their children as a common cause, it helps bring people together and give them something positive to focus on,” explains Sweta Shah, Education in Emergency Specialist for Plan International.

In partnership with other agencies, Plan is consulting with children in Nepal and will share the results with government, UN and other humanitarian agencies to help inform and shape their recovery initiatives, as well as our own. We believe that listening is the best way to understand and properly address needs.

“Children have a right to be consulted in decisions that affect them. The burden of the recovery will be as much their task as it will be adults’, so they must be given the opportunity to play an important role in the recovery,” says Mattias Bryneson, Plan Nepal Country Director.

The long road to recovery will not be easy for the children of Nepal, but with every new quest, comes an opportunity for change.

“It will take years for Nepal to recover from this earthquake,” says one 14-year-old Nepalese boy, “but we can surely be better prepared for the next one,” he adds, full of optimism.


*Source: CBC

Plan is proud to participate in the HUMANITARIAN COALITION, comprised of Plan Canada, CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, Save the Children Canada, five of Canada’s largest relief agencies. By joining our efforts, the HUMANITARIAN COALITION will increase the impact of Canadian humanitarian responses and reduce administrative costs.

To find out more, visit the HUMANITARIAN COALITION website at