Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

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Wars against children

UN report calls for action to protect children from armed conflict


"More and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a space in which children are exploited as soldiers; a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality."

A new report submitted in November to the 1996 regular session of the United Nations General Assembly makes disturbing and often shocking reading. 'The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children' is the result of a two-year process of research and consultation undertaken by Graça Machel, the Secretary-General's Expert on the subject and a former Minister for Education in Mozambique.

The report reveals the full extent of children's involvement in the 30 or so armed conflicts raging around the world. "Millions of children are caught up in conflicts in which they are not merely bystanders, but targets. Some fall victim to a general onslaught against civilians; others die as part of a calculated genocide. Still other children suffer the effects of sexual violence or the multiple deprivations of armed conflict that expose them to hunger or disease. Just as shocking, thousands of young people are cynically exploited as combatants."

Photo: In Managua, the capital, a boy whose family has been displaced by the war sits on an abandoned tank that belonged to the Somoza government forces, defeated in 1979. ©

The report says that in the past decade, around 2 million children have been killed in armed conflict, three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, and countless others have been forced to witness or even to take part in horrifying acts of violence.

Why are children so brutally exposed during modern warfare not just accidentally but as deliberate targets? The report points to the changing character of modern warfare. All of today's wars are being fought not between States but within them. And in many cases religious and ethnic affiliations are being manipulated to heighten feelings of hatred or aggression against children as well as adults. Battles are fought from village to village and from street to street. As a result, the proportion of war victims who are civilians has leapt in recent decades from 5 per cent to over 90 per cent and at least half of these are children.

In addition, children are being deliberately recruited as combatants. This has been made easier by the proliferation of light weapons. Assault rifles are cheap and widely available, thanks to the international arms trade. In Uganda, an AK-47 can be purchased for the cost of a chicken. Previously, the more dangerous weapons were heavy or complex, but these guns are so light that children can use them, and so simple that they can be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10.

Coupled with the rapid social change which often precedes or accompanies war, armed conflict leads to a breakdown in the family support systems so essential to a child's survival and development. Other forms of protection also slip away, particularly government and community support systems. As a result, says the report, children are being denied the protection promised them in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. "War violates every right of a child the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the right to health, the right to the development of the personality, and the right to be nurtured and protected."

The youngest soldiers

Children are affected by warfare in many ways, but one of the most alarming trends is their participation as soldiers. A series of 24 case studies, prepared for this aspect of the report, indicates that government or rebel armies have recruited tens of thousands of children. Most are adolescent boys, but many are girls, and some recruits are 10 years or younger. Many of these are forcibly recruited, seized from the streets, or even from schools or orphanages. Others are driven to join armed groups by fear or poverty, believing that this is the only way to achieve some protection from the violence around them or to be sure of regular meals, clothing or medical attention.

Child soldiers often start out in support functions. Boys serve as porters or as messengers. Girls may prepare food or attend to the wounded though they also may be forced to provide sexual services or be 'married off' to other soldiers. However, both boys and girls are soon forced onto the battlefield where their youth and inexperience leave them particularly vulnerable. Often they are unaware of the real dangers they face; they may even forget to take cover. In a number of cases children have been deliberately exposed to horrific scenes to harden them to violence. Some have even been forced to commit atrocities against their own families as a way of severing all ties with their communities.

The report calls for a global campaign to stop the recruitment of anyone under 18 into armed forces and to encourage governments and opposition groups to immediately demobilize all such children. It recommends that all peace agreements specifically address the need to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers back into society. It also calls on all governments to support the ready conclusion and adoption of a draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would establish the minimum age of recruitment and participation as 18 years.

Children in flight

Around the planet there are millions of children who have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries as refugees or who have been 'internally displaced' within their own countries. These children are in need of special attention. At a crucial and vulnerable time in their lives, these children are brutally uprooted and exposed to danger and insecurity. The report explains the particular vulnerability of internally displaced children. While refugees benefit from the specific attention of a number of international organizations, those who are displaced internally receive less protection even though they tend to be at greater risk. The report recommends, therefore, that in each emergency a lead agency be appointed for the protection and assistance of the internally displaced. In collaboration with the lead agency, UNICEF should provide leadership for the protection and care of internally displaced children.

In the chaos of war many children are parted from their parents or other caregivers. The report highlights the need for initiating rapid and effective programmes of family tracing for these 'unaccompanied children'. It also emphasizes the need for continuity in care. Nevertheless, the report cautions against placing unaccompanied children in institutions, arguing instead for care by relatives, friends or foster families.

Gender-based violence

Among the most severe problems which all children and women face during armed conflicts is a heightened risk of rape, sexual humiliation, prostitution and other forms of gender-based violence. Women of all ages are targets, but adolescent girls are often especially vulnerable since they may be thought less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS. While most victims have been girls, young boys are also raped or forced into prostitution although such cases are generally underreported.

These crimes might be seen simply as a consequence of general societal breakdown during wartime, but the report says that rape and other forms of gender-based violence are often used systematically as weapons of war. Yet such violence is rarely taken as seriously as it should be. To help prevent these abuses the report recommends that all military and peace-keeping troops have special training on their responsibilities to women and children. But it also makes a case for rigorous punishment, saying that all cases of wartime rape and sexual torture should be prosecuted as war crimes.

The legacy of land-mines

Both during and after conflicts, children remain exposed to the dangers of land-mines. Globally there are some 110 million land-mines lying in wait for their victims. Added to these are millions of pieces of unexploded ordnance bombs shells and grenades that failed to detonate on impact.

Children are particularly exposed. Their natural curiosity leads them to investigate any strange object and, unable to read warning signs, they can easily stray into minefields. While an adult may survive a detonation, even the smallest explosion can be lethal for a child. In Cambodia, around 20 per cent of all children injured by such devices die from their injuries. The human and economic devastation caused by land-mines has led to an international campaign for a complete ban on the production, use, trade and stockpiling of land-mines. The report supports this campaign. It also emphasizes the importance of mine clearance, as well as mine awareness programmes designed for children and the need to rehabilitate child victims of mine explosions. The report proposes that such activities be largely financed by companies and countries which have profited from the sale of these deadly devices.

Child health under attack

Thousands of children die each year as a direct result of armed violence from knives, bullets, bombs and land-mines. But as the report points out, millions more die from the indirect consequences of warfare as a result of the disruption in food supplies, for example, and the destruction of health services, water systems and sanitation. In poor countries where children are already vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, the onset of armed conflict can increase death rates by up to 24 times with those under five years at particular risk.

But beyond the physical dangers, children may also suffer lasting psychosocial damage as a result of the loss of their families, for example, or of exposure to violence. One UNICEF survey in Rwanda found that nearly 80 per cent of children had lost immediate family members, and more than one third of these had actually witnessed the murders. Children are also affected by other distressing experiences. Armed conflict splinters communities and breaks down trust among people undermining the very foundation of children's lives. Different children will respond in different ways to such distressing experiences. Most will recover fairly quickly but a few may suffer permanent damage.

The report argues that all emergency assistance should specifically address the health needs of children. Emergency health teams should always include paediatric care and ensure access to reproductive health care for adolescents. When it comes to psychosocial care, the report emphasizes the importance of building on community resources helping close family members as well as schoolteachers and other community workers to provide children with the long-term support they need.

The role of education

Education affords children a sense of security and continuity even when they are surrounded by chaos engendered by armed conflict. Therefore, the report argues that schools should be kept open as long as feasible and that informal classes should be established as soon as possible in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons. Schooling should be flexible, with lessons held in the safest place at the safest time. Lessons can be held in caves or under trees, for example. Humanitarian assistance should include such flexible approaches to education.

Keeping children in class is particularly important for adolescents who are at risk of being recruited into armed forces, prostitution or drug abuse. The report indicates that one of the best ways to protect older children is to involve them actively in community activities, including their own personal development programmes.

A call to action

In the long term, the report says, the international community must do all it can to prevent the outbreak of fighting, by addressing the socio-economic roots of conflict and banning arms shipments to conflict zones. It also insists that all actions to resolve conflicts and implement peace agreements including such actions mandated by the UN Security Council and the General Assembly should focus strongly on the needs of children and women.

In the meantime, however, everything must be done to protect children caught up in armed struggles. The report says that everyone has a responsibility to report abuses of the rights of children and must take urgent measures to protect them. "Above all else, this report is a call to action. It is unconscionable that we so clearly and consistently see children's rights attacked, and that we fail to defend them. It is unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered and yet our conscience is not revolted nor our sense of dignity challenged."

The report calls for the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General to assess the implementation of the report's recommendations and to keep children's concerns high on the international agenda. The report concludes: "Let us take this opportunity to recapture our instinct to nourish and protect children. Let us transform our moral outrage into concrete action ... Peace is every child's right."

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