Protection of children and their well-being should be key priorities in war and conflict settings.
Over 449 million children – or 1 in 6—were living in a conflict zone in 2021. Wars and conflicts reconfigure lives and landscapes. While images coming from Ukraine and other war zones highlight deaths and destruction, there is a growing concern about the emotional impact on children, the disabilities wars cause, and the protection and well-being of children in such settings. Children are often made to fire, maim and kill. They are often forced to walk first on minefields to ensure the safety of adult soldiers. This week, the Norwegian Government is hosting a conference on the protection of children in armed conflicts. Amongst other topics, the conference will also address the plight of children associated with armed groups and armed forces.
During my humanitarian missions, I have come across several children who are victims and survivors and at times who are forced and coerced to fight on the frontlines. A few missile strikes are all it takes to distort the image of children- from someone who is carrying a school bag, playing football or just having a stroll with friends to those fleeing terror, often separated from friends, families and pets and in crowded ill-equipped refugee camps.
During a humanitarian mission to the war-torn Mazar E Sherif in Afghanistan several years ago, I met Abdul, 16. He carried a rusted AK-47 and talked softly. He lost his parents in an explosion. He was too young to figure out why. Someone gave the school dropout a machine gun. The Taliban were no longer in power in Kabul by 2003. The war was over. That meant no ‘job’ for Abdul used to be a young ‘fighter’. Abdul kept his AK-47, his only possession as he called it. Abdul would fire a few shots into the air to celebrate a wedding in the neighborhood or a birthday and earn a few Afs, the Afghan currency, and a full meal. Later, I often wondered what happened to Abdul and his dream to become a pilot. And the other children of someone else’s war.
About 449 million children worldwide—or 1 in 6—were living in a conflict zone in 2021. If all children living in conflict and war zones lived in one country, it would be the third most populous country in the world. A ‘republic of war in perpetual protection crisis’ and an ending saga of suffering from the trauma they have endured. Africa had the highest overall number of children impacted by conflict (180 million), followed by Asia (152 million), and the Americas (64 million). The Middle East was home to the highest proportion of children living in conflict areas, (1 in every 3 children).
GIRLS IN CONFLICTS
According to the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action (an umbrella body of humanitarian agencies) girls represent 6 to 50% of children associated with armed forces and armed groups. However, only a fraction of girls is formally identified and released. The longer the conflict, the higher the chances of recruitment of girls. Girls are often recruited through abduction, forced marriage, and false promises. Girls may be forced to marry fighters which put them at risk of exploitation and abuse. Children born of sexual violence add stigma. Some families use child marriage as a “protective” measure against abduction.
Children who have lost mobility are often more prone to psychosocial challenges. The mother of a teenager I met in Afghanistan, told me that land mines wiped out her child’s both legs, stopping him from playing football, his favorite sport. It was not easy for him to engage in play, attend schools or engage in other activities that make a child a child. She told me that a war is often a funeral in slow motion.
There is no suffering left in hell. It is all in the minds and lives of children impacted by war and violence. In the early days of the “Ukraine conflict”, in the relative comfort of a temporary reception center in Galati, on the Ukraine-Romania border, seven-year-old Anna* arrives with her mother, Sofia, and grandmother after fleeing bombs in their hometown of Odesa. Anna has stopped talking. The child talks only in her sleep, Sofia told me and hugs her mother close. Anna witnessed explosions and death back in Odessa – scenes a child should never see. She is also upset because they couldn’t bring Sheyla, her pet dog, along with them. Anna used to sing in a choir in Odessa Opera House, her grandmother – also an artist – told me proudly.
The United Nations identifies six grave violations against children during war namely: Killing and maiming of children; Recruitment or use of children as soldiers; Sexual violence against children; Abduction of children; Attacks against schools or hospitals; Denial of humanitarian access for children. A report by UNICEF shows that between 2016 and 2020, an average of 71 verified grave violations against children every day. For every reported and verified violation, there are several other possible unreported cases. Ending the six grave violations is key.
The protection of children and their well-being should be a top priority in war and conflict settings. Wars and children should never be together. The conference in Oslo is hosted by the Norwegian Government (which has a long history of playing the role of mediators and negotiators in many conflict settings), the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the UN, and Save The Children. I hope the conference inspires donors to commit resources to address child protection, their well-being, and lifesaving needs, as well as invisible needs such as emotional care and support.
In a world that spent over $ 1.2 trillion on military expenditure in 2022, this amount will be a small change. But it can save lives, save futures and build more health centers, schools, and playgrounds. Children like Abdul may then turn to football, their favourite sport.
*Edited versions of this blog also appeared on
Dagsavisen (in Norwegian ) https://www.dagsavisen.no/debatt/2023/06/05/gjor-slagmarkene-om-til-fotballbaner/ Gjør slagmarkene om til fotballbaner – Beskyttelse av barn må prioriteres der det er krig og konflikt.
Death, trauma, abuse: Why life is ‘a funeral in slow motion’ for children of war (thefederal.com)