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Copyright UNICEF/99-0177/Radhika Chalasani

The effects of armed conflict on early childhood

On any given day, 20 or more armed conflicts are being fought around the world, most in poor countries. In the past decade alone, because of wars, 2 million children were killed, 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.

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 (Russian Federation) 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.

Zones of peace and child-friendly spaces

To protect 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.

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. 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 people's spirit and from its most vulnerable citizens - children. During a recent border war, for example, Eritrea and Ethiopia spent hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons, money that could instead have been spent on young lives. The internal conflict in Sri Lanka has depressed the economy and cost more than 60,000 lives to date.

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.

 

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