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The effects of armed conflict on early childhood
On any given day, more than 20 armed conflicts are being fought around the world, most in poor countries.35 War is traumatic, at the very least disrupting daily lives and usual routines. More likely, violating a childs rights. In the past decade alone, 2 million children were slaughtered, 6 million were seriously injured or permanently disabled and 12 million were left homeless. It is estimated that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of people who die or are injured in conflicts are civilians, mostly children and their mothers.36 In the last decade of the 20th century, over a million children were orphaned or separated from their families because of armed conflict.37
In some of the more recent hostilities, children in Sierra Leone, Sudan and northern Uganda witnessed the torture and murder of family members, and those in Chechnya withstood repeated bombings and explosions. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a quarter of a million children were massacred. In 1999, Kosovar children, forced from their homes because of ethnic cleansing, were left homeless, separated from their families and uprooted from everything familiar.
While parents in stable and affluent societies might debate whether to play Mozart or Brahms to best stimulate the brain development of their young infants, those in conflict zones hold their infants close, shaking from the sounds of bombs or rifle fire. While controlled studies can prove the positive effects of gentle cooing and motherese on early childhood, one can only surmise what happens to a young child during the uncontrolled reality of war.
Children who endure the inhumanity of war may suffer the scars of post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological wound that interrupts the development process. For children under three years of age, severe trauma not only emotionally scars them, but it can also permanently change their brain chemistry.38 So, wars youngest victims are in special need of physical and psychological care. Healing young childrens physical wounds allows them to survive war. Healing their spirits may prevent the next war.
Zones of peace and child-friendly spaces. Children in war zones are expected to bear the unbearable and to understand the inexplicable. During these times of extreme crisis, one wonders how infants, toddlers, children and their families can be offered anything more than basic tools of survival: food, water and limited shelter. The global community may see cognitive development and psychological care as luxuries when physical needs are clearly the priority. But even in crisis, children cry out not only for food and water but also for comfort and love. Without interventions, the traumatized child may become frozen in time. The infant withdraws and becomes listless. The toddler, overwhelmed with fear, regresses to bed-wetting and thumb sucking. The pre-schooler, submerged in grief, acts out aggressively or retreats into silence.
To save both the lives and minds of children, UNICEF and its partners attempt to create zones of peace and child-friendly spaces in many crisis situations. In Sri Lanka, Sudan and other countries, UNICEF and other organizations negotiated with combatants to permit a cessation of hostilities so that children could be reached with food, medicine and vaccinations. In spite of armed conflict, combatants allowed childrens immunizations to go on as planned. Sadly, these corridors of peace are not always implemented. This past year, Sierra Leone cancelled two of its four planned National Immunization Days due to renewed hostilities.
Providing food and shelter to children creates some sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation. Providing schooling, play and counselling does so more completely. During the massive flow of refugees to Albania during the ethnic conflict in Kosovo, relief agencies first provided drugs, vaccines, clean water and food to prevent infant, child and maternal mortality. After these initial survival strategies were in place, the Child-Friendly Spaces Initiative (CFS) provided infant care, pre- and primary school education, recreational activities, psychosocial support for infants and toddlers and counselling for children and their families.
It is difficult to juxtapose the images of children colouring, stacking blocks and dancing with the images of children screaming in fear, huddling next to a wounded parent or lying on sheets saturated with their own blood. But in caring for children scarred by war, caregivers must attend to these young victims emotional damage as well as to their physical wounds.
Stealing from infants and children. War is costly. It impoverishes a nation, stealing not only from its treasury but also from its peoples spirit and from its most vulnerable citizens children. In addition to the physical and emotional scars that organized violence causes, it drains precious resources. Money that could be spent on building young lives is instead wasted on destruction. During a recent border war, for example, Eritrea and Ethiopia spent hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons, while 1 million Eritreans and 8 million Ethiopians faced famine.
Costing more than 60,000 lives to date, the internal conflict in Sri Lanka has depressed the economy. Sri Lankas central bank reports that the armed conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese-majority Government has been the difference between a projected mid-level economy and the lower economy the country actually has.39 The Government of Sri Lanka has raised its defence budget to $880 million from $700 million.40 Every dollar spent on a warplane is one unavailable to be spent on children. In the village of Ambanganga, there are no bombs or landmines. Yet children like Priyanthis daughter and son are nonetheless deeply affected by the conflict as money is spent on warplanes, robbing them of clean water, adequate sanitation, vaccines, books and passable roads.
In the combat area of Sri Lankas Jaffna Peninsula, the cost of the war is far higher. Here children and their families are living under fire and older children have been taken as child soldiers. Like other war-torn areas, thousands of infants and children have been disabled, left homeless, orphaned or killed.
The seeds of ethnic and religious intolerance are sown early. But if a fraction of the money that is pumped into military destruction were spent on providing every child with a healthy start, seeds of animosity could be replaced by empathy and tolerance. Early in life, children would learn about tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution. An investment in children can pay a huge peace dividend.
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