For 18 years, one Malaysian has been making a difference, working with children in conflict zones and areas hit by natural disasters in seven countries.
The New Straits Times speaks to Unicef deputy representative to Afghanistan, Sheema Sen Gupta, about her extensive experience.
Question: What was it like when you grew up and did it inspire you to work in the United Nations Children’s Fund?
Answer: I was born in Kuala Lumpur and grew up in Setapak Garden. I went to Bukit Bintang Girls’ School and graduated with a degree and master’s in clinical psychology from the University of Calcutta in India.
In 1989, I enquired with Unicef Malaysia on how my skills and qualifications could help in their work. However, the Malaysian team then was very small and it was not able to use my skills.
Between 1992 and 2000, I returned to Calcutta and worked on cases involving street kids and adolescents on suicide prevention with an urban-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) called The Calcutta Samaritans.
We also helped students from high-performing schools who suffered mental breakdown due to parental expectation to excel in their studies by counselling them throughout their time of difficulty.
Q: How did you, as a Malaysian, get involved in Unicef? Please share with us about the places that you have been to and some of the devastating experiences that you encountered.
A: While working with The Calcutta Samaritans in 1999, the Unicef team in Delhi approached me. In 2000, I joined them on a short consultancy to develop psycho-social concepts.
In Delhi, I started working with children in difficult circumstances to develop a training module for them, including those who came into conflict with the law and sent for rehabilitation by the juvenile justice system.
Now it is known as Child Protection in Unicef. Some of its work has now evolved to providing counselling services to child trafficking victims.
Natural disaster was common, with yearly occurrences in India. The Gujarat earthquake occurred in January 2001, just six months after I joined Unicef.
Seeing children being orphaned overnight and left without family members was very devastating.
After the Asian tsunami hit India in 2004, I moved to the Sri Lanka Unicef office. There, I experienced the final phases of the civil war, where the government launched an offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
It was one thing to see children in natural disasters, but it was a completely different thing to see children sleeping in camps with armed soldiers all around them.
At that time, in Colombo, I had my daughter with me. She had to pass through many checkpoints manned by soldiers to travel to school. I was worried about the impact of such exposure on her.
I also learnt about the recruitment of child soldiers by LTTE, some as young as 9. Most of them, however, were boys and girls in their early and mid-teens.
Unicef worked on getting them released and preventing the troops from recruiting them. This was also around the time that the UN Security Council passed a resolution on monitoring and reporting grave children’s rights violations in 2006.
It was imperative to have factual information, such as recordings of what we saw and the information that we were getting on child rights violations as evidence to understand and respond to their needs.
Q: Besides working on psycho-social support for children in armed conflict, what are the other aspects of your work?
A: I worked on the development agenda in a country. This was during my time in Ghana between 2009 and 2011. Prior to that, I was in Myanmar.
Of all the places I have been to, Ghana was the one which I could really focus on the development agenda, particularly on action by governments to reaffirm their commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Ghana was committed to enact a proper legislation and framework to safeguard its children’s rights.
People in Ghana were friendly and polite. They really looked up to our country and wanted to learn from us as they also gained their independence in 1957.
In 1989, the UNCRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly, and Ghana was the first country to ratify the convention in 1990.
My team worked on developing a system in Ghana to facilitate birth registration. When I first came in, the rate was 51 per cent. It jumped to 72 per cent by the time I left.
Unlike Malaysia, birth registration was not tied to any services provision in Ghana. That was why people could get by without registering their birth.
However, an unregistered child does not have an identity, and nobody knows if he or she goes missing. And with no records, the government could not do anything to find them.
Q: What was the most terrifying moment that will forever be etched in your mind?
A: It happened when I was based in Nairobi, Kenya, after my stint in Ghana. I was the head of child protection there (which also covered Somalia).
This was when Somalia was holding its first election after 20 years. Unicef was contributing to the writing of its constitution as there was a children’s chapter in it. The chapter was in line with the UNCRC, even though Somalia had not ratified it at the time. Somalia finally ratified the UNCRC in 2015.
In 2013, there was an attack on the UN compound in Mogadishu, and we had friends and colleagues who lost their lives.
In September the same year, there was an attack at a mall in Nairobi. One of my team members was shot, but he survived.
In 2015, something shook us to the core when an incident happened in Garowe (Somalia).
There was a male suicide bomber who attacked one of our vehicles, resulting in the death of four colleagues. Five others who survived had to go through many years of surgery and rehabilitation before they could recover.
Q: After this incident in Somalia, what happened to your career?
A: I stayed in Somalia until 2016, and then, I moved to Bangladesh in November as a deputy representative of Unicef.
I was head of all the programmes that revolved around health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education and child protection, among others.
Bangladesh had about 160 million people. Like Ghana, my work there was more on development programmes rather than humanitarian work.
Our main role was on working with the government in delivering its commitment to the children, including child budgeting. However, in August 2017, the Rohingya crisis flared up.
Suddenly, we had about 700,000 Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar over a short period. They had not been vaccinated and were malnourished.
Q: Did you see humanitarian aid pouring in from Malaysia to help children in conflict?
A: In Somalia and also in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, I saw humanitarian aid for the Rohingya from the Malaysian government and its people. I recognised the Malaysian NGO members from their T-shirts.
I have seen the Malaysian Field Hospital (in Bangladesh) as well. I think we need to create more understanding among young people on what is happening around the world.
Then, they can be more giving and appreciative of the peace and stability that we have in our own country.
As Unicef was trying to raise funds, the Malaysian people also lent their support. It was really good to have that happening.
Q: Afghanistan is in conflict for 40 years. How does it affect the children’s wellbeing?
A: I moved to Afghanistan in February. The conflict had dragged on for more than two generations. There was a large number of children who are breadwinners of families (and they had been) recruited and used by armed groups.
Because of the high level of poverty, families often send their sons as refugees to Europe, where they had to trek across dangerous routes.
Our data showed that 90 per cent of unaccompanied children who went to Europe were mostly Afghanistan boys. When they arrived in Europe, they would be deported. When they return, we have to ensure that they are not detained and we have service provisions for them.
In Afghanistan, 51 per cent of people live in poverty, resulting in a high level of malnutrition.
There are 600,000 children in Afghanistan who suffer from severe acute malnourishment, so we have to ensure that they are fed therapeutic food.
There are 3.5 million children who have never been to school and 60 per cent of them are girls. So, we prioritise getting them access to education as well.
Besides that, only one in two children have received their vaccinations. This lack of access was due to some areas being under the control of anti-government elements, including the Taliban and other armed groups.
Q: What is your hope for the children?
A: Our psycho-social support is about wellbeing. It gives us hope, for instance, when we are able to get child soldiers released in Sri Lanka, Somalia and Afghanistan.
After that, we provide them with support and a reintegration programme so they can go back to school, get skills training, start working and live with their families.
It is about getting children to go back to a normal routine (for a child) after any stress and trauma due to natural disasters or conflicts, so they can lead a normal childhood.
Standing up for kids with no families or adequate support is the driving force that keeps me going.