Ayman Mohyeldin

The Key to Gaza's Future: Protecting its adolescents today

Everywhere you look in Gaza City, you see them. Children are omnipresent: playing football in the narrow alleyways of the refugee camps, running around the city's open promenades and farm fields or swimming along the sandy beaches on the coast. These kids embody the heart and soul of the Gaza Strip, their laughter, shouts and energy making up the very pulse of life.

And yet the children of Gaza - who compose about half its population - are the most vulnerable segment in a society enduring the consequences of a decades-long conflict. The punishing effects of this battle do not differentiate between young and old.

Today, adolescents in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are struggling, their potential untapped and their dreams out of reach. Years of war, infighting, blockades and political uncertainty have created an environment that threatens the rights of children despite the international conventions designed to protect them.

For the past decade, Gaza has been plagued by violence. The extended conflict and instability have left no one untouched. According to a study in 2009, 61.5 per cent of children showed severe reactions of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Children have been affected by the territory's economic stagnation as well. With about one third of the population unemployed, they are often burdened with the responsibility to generate income for their families by begging or working menial jobs. Increasingly, adolescents are found working in Gaza's shadowy tunnel industry. As is common in child labour, they work long, arduous hours with very little compensation or protection.

Adolescents also face educational hardships. Secondary school enrolment has declined, and it has not been possible to reconstruct schools that have fallen into decrepitude or were destroyed as a result of military operations. In addition, those who are successful and excel academically are often unable to pursue further educational opportunities abroad because of the travel restrictions and blockades imposed on the territory.

While delivering humanitarian aid and supplies remains a challenge, family centres provided by organizations such as UNICEF, the Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation and Save the Children offer psychosocial support and educational activities such as math classes, creative writing and handicrafts. Through counselling, emergency interventions, non-formal education and peer-to-peer counselling, children are given the opportunity to express themselves.

Despite the obstacles, adolescents in Gaza have demonstrated inspirational resilience and capacity for recovery. I will never forget the looks on the faces of Gaza's children in the summer of 2009. On a hot day, in the middle of the afternoon, thousands of them gathered on the northern beach to break the world record for kite flying. Before the cameras and international observers, with the whole world watching, they did just that! For a few minutes, the children of Gaza were allowed to reach for the skies and show the world that they, too, can be among the best when given the proper opportunities and encouragement. They can achieve excellence.

In the two years I have spent covering the Gaza Strip, I have come to a very important conclusion: The Gaza region's future does not depend solely on the outcome of politicians- negotiations around a table but also on the realization of its children's potential. They are the architects of their society and state, and they are entitled to inhabit it as a free people. To give the children of Gaza a chance at a promising future, the international community must protect them and afford them the basic rights so effortlessly enjoyed by children elsewhere.

Ayman Mohyeldin is a correspondent for the Al Jazeera English Network. He has reported for Al Jazeera from across the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Before joining Al Jazeera English, he worked for CNN and NBC News in the United States and the Middle East.

Panels

The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.

Essays

Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.