Cover Story

While the Taliban fell in Afghanistan more than five years ago, life for many children there is still a daily struggle. To make ends meet, some impoverished families marry off young girls to old men to receive a "bride-price." Landmines and uncovered wells harm or kill many young boys.

To reduce those and other risks, in 2002 the Christian Children's Fund (CCF) sent psychologist Michael G. Wessells, PhD, into the country right after the Taliban fell. Wessells convened groups of villagers to address the issues endangering children.

"What we try to do is mobilize communities to take stock of what their children need," he says.

That approach is typical of Wessells, a Columbia University professor who spends half his time traveling the world as CCF senior adviser on child protection. He began working with CCF when asked to evaluate a program in Angola to help children deal with the stresses of war. Since then, Wessells has worked alongside tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka, war widows in Uganda, and former child-soldiers in Sierra Leone. But no matter where he finds himself, his goal is the same: To improve conditions by working through local people, rather then by providing treatment himself.

In Afghanistan, for example, Wessells tackled the problem of child marriage by educating religious leaders, many of whom went on to repudiate the practice. He also gathered groups of children to draw maps of the dangers in their villages. Boys identified uncovered wells, where toddlers had recently fallen in and drowned. Girls drew maps marking areas where there were no latrines and girls might have to relieve themselves in the bush, potentially exposing themselves.

"In their society, it is a permanent dishonoring," explains Wessells. "An Afghan girl's life can be ruined by a moment of accidental exposure."

The villagers went on to address these issues themselves, covering open wells and building latrines--an example of how resilient war-torn communities can be, says Wessells. In fact, the psychologist sees his mission as helping to build up communities' capacity to address problems on their own--and on their own terms.

"Wherever I work, whether it is postdisaster or during or after an armed conflict, my goal is to work with local people in partnership, so they can organize community protection mechanisms for children," he says.

Too often, he adds, humanitarian workers take a narrow focus on counseling, without looking at broader needs, such as reducing stigmatization of war victims, helping people gain access to legal recourse and connecting impoverished people with ways to earn an income.

"One has to be able to work in a culturally grounded way," says Wessells. "That may mean activities and forms of work that bear little resemblance to what psychologists do within the boundaries of the U.S. or Canada."

--S. Dingfelder