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A continuum of violence

It is shocking enough that children are blown up by mines, fighting on the front lines, or falling victim to famine or disease in refugee camps. But open warfare is only part of a much broader picture of violence against children.

Millions of other children struggle to survive in close-to-battlefield conditions on the streets of the world's cities—from Los Angeles to São Paulo to Manila. Guns and knives and fights are chilling parts of daily life. In the US, gang violence, often drug-related, is drawing in ever-younger children. In urban areas around the world, children spend their days begging or cleaning car windows—numbing their pain by inhaling chemical solvents or glue. And in some Latin American countries, businessmen have paid off-duty policemen, security guards, or professional killers to eliminate street children they consider a nuisance.


Photo: In the destroyed Bosnian city of Mostar, a street sign alerting motorists to school-children still stands, riddled with bullet holes. ©


Millions of other children suffer from the collapse of public services. The governments of many developing countries, in the face of deepening economic crises and under pressures of structural adjustment, have cut health and education services and reduced food subsidies. While there may be longer-term benefits to elements of adjustment, the costs to today's families and children have been immense.

This violent environment not only adds to human suffering, but also contains the seeds of future conflict. All of what are now seen as 'complex emergencies' have their roots deep in long-running social, political and economic crises. Even those disputes that appear most surprising have clear antecedents. The outbreaks of violence in Chiapas in Mexico in 1994 came as less of a surprise to those who lived there and knew of the sharp divide between the indigenous people of Chiapas and the rest of the country. Their state provides one fifth of the country's electricity and one third of its coffee, yet the Mayan population there lives close to destitution.54

Such pressures have built up over generations, but the world is clearly moving into a much more fluid era in which underlying tensions are erupting to the surface.

The collapse of communism, the end of the cold war and the extension of liberal democracy have all combined to create a much more volatile situation as people regroup in different political formations.

There is also greater economic uncertainty. The steady globalization of international finance and trade may be creating wealth for some, but for millions of others it is leading to conditions of marginalization and social disintegration. And industrialized countries have been increasingly reluctant to meet the financial shortfalls with aid. Development assistance actually fell in 1993 for the first time in several years. This is a particularly serious development for Africa, which finds it difficult to attract private funds.

Pointing out the chronic nature of many of these crises is not a counsel of despair. What it does, in fact, suggest is that unless these underlying issues are addressed, future generations of children will live in a constant state of war. The response has to take place at many levels simultaneously: legal, economic and political.


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