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Letter on food aid and child protection issues, by Anna Taylor

Save the Children UK would like to follow up the short article in issue 15 of Field Exchange, "Food aid for sex scandal in West Africa". The report to which this article refers raises very serious issues for humanitarian aid agencies, and SC UK is trying to incorporate the lessons learnt from this episode into its practice and advocacy. SC UK would like to share with readers its assessment of the child protection problem as it affects food aid programmes, and make recommendations on how child protection can be better ensured.

The West Africa report highlights a number of child protection issues that relate specifically to food aid programmes:

  1. .Refugee and IDP families receive a ration that is insufficient to meet their calorific requirements. Alternative livelihood options are extremely limited and permitting or overlooking the sexual exploitation of young girls in exchange for material benefits has become widespread because the alternative is severe hunger.
  2. Refugee and IDP communities are poorly informed about the services to which they are entitled and how they can be accessed. For example, who (what age / sex/ family type) is entitled to be registered to receive food. An adolescent girl reported that she was told she could not register alone and so got married in order to receive food. As a consequence of the war and widespread sexual exploitation, household composition and type has been affected and has resulted in 'girl' mothers, separated children etc. The food needs of these groups do not appear to have been adequately addressed by the food distribution system.
  3. International agencies staff use the powerful position which they hold within the refugee communities to sexually exploit young girls and to punish those who refuse to be exploited.
  4. Communities most affected by sexual exploitation are those without a political voice. They have no functioning mechanism for ensuring that their experiences are heard and addressed. This has implications for food aid programming as well as all other areas of intervention.

There are a number of practical steps and advocacy messages that humanitarian agencies can take in order to address the child protection problems listed above.

  1. Protracted refugee emergencies are those probably most subject to erosion of the ration received due to both donor disinterest and an (often unsubstantiated) assumption that the longer a community is displaced the more likely they are to have established livelihood alternatives. Agencies should ensure that decisions to reduce rations are based on sound information and a thorough analysis of how communities access food and whether they are employing high risk coping strategies (such as sexual exploitation).
  2. It is of course best practice to: 1) investigate household type and composition to ensure that the registration system does not discriminate against certain household types 2) to regularly inform communities about the services available to them. In reality these issues are often overlooked and distribution systems are not adapted to local circumstances. While this may be understandable in the first phase of an emergency, it is inexcusable in a protracted refugee situation.
  3. The report points to the need for a separate reporting mechanism for communities to reach responsible senior agency officials to report breaches in agency child protection policy in commodity distribution.
  4. Staff recruited for food distribution should be trained in child protection issues and managers hired should be known to the agency (either as long term employees or recommended from another agency with adequate child protection checks). Managers should have in place transparent monitoring mechanisms for commodities for distribution and should be supported (in terms of time and management back-up) to conduct ad hoc investigations into the behaviour of distribution staff. This may involve talking to communities, cross checking distribution records etc.

The West Africa report does not mention feeding programmes, but these also have the potential for child abuse and exploitation, which should not be ignored. When a mother and sick child are admitted into a therapeutic feeding centre for 24 hour care, children who are left at home may be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Alternatively, if an adult carer is not admitted into the feeding centre with the child, there is a risk that the child might become separated from its family. Abuse by staff, particularly at night, of children and mothers who have been admitted into feeding centres is also a possibility. Abuse of children may also occur where the food distribution mechanism relies on giving food to families only when children are malnourished rather than providing a general ration; this may encourage withholding food or medical treatment from children to ensure that they meet entry criteria for the programme.

SC UK hopes that the revised edition of the Sphere handbook will address these issues of child protection within humanitarian responses.

It would be useful to hear from other agencies how they intend to, or already do, build child protection measures into their food aid programmes.

Anna Taylor
Nutrition Advisor (Save the Children UK)
Email: a.taylor@scfuk.org.uk

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Reference this page

Anna Taylor (2002). Letter on food aid and child protection issues, by Anna Taylor. Field Exchange 16, August 2002. p19. www.ennonline.net/fex/16/anna