Protecting children in humanitarian action
During violent conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies, children are the first victims.
Children pay the highest price of humanitarian crisis. Armed conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies expose millions of girls and boys to unthinkable forms of violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect.
Many children are forced to flee their homes, some torn from their parents and caregivers along the way. In conflict, children may be injured or killed by explosive weapons and remnants of war, including during attacks on schools and hospitals. They may be recruited by armed forces – not only as fighters, but as scouts, cooks, porters, guards, messengers and more. Especially for girls and women, the threat of gender-based violence soars.
Through it all, children lose critical health, education and protection services. Their mental health and psychosocial needs are often neglected, with consequences that can last a lifetime.
Explosive weapons kill and injure thousands of civilians each year, during and after armed conflict. Children account for roughly half of the casualties from explosive ordnance. Child survivors endure staggering physical injury and psychological trauma. But explosive weapons also inflict severe harm on children indirectly: Especially in populated areas, explosives destroy vital infrastructure – like water pipelines, sanitation facilities, hospitals and schools – cutting children off from essential services.
Thousands of children are recruited and used in armed conflicts across the world. Often referred to as “child soldiers,” these boys and girls suffer extensive forms of exploitation and abuse that are not fully captured by that term. Warring parties use children not only as fighters, but as scouts, cooks, porters, guards, messengers and more.
Gender-based violence is the most pervasive yet least visible human rights violation in the world. It includes physical, sexual, mental or economic harm inflicted on a person because of socially ascribed power imbalances between males and females. It also includes the threat of violence, coercion and deprivation of liberty, whether in public or private. In emergency settings, the risk of gender-based violence soars.
Violent conflicts, natural disasters and other crises force thousands of children from their parents and caregivers each year. Some are separated from their families during the chaos of a humanitarian emergency. Others may be pulled away by parties involved in a violent conflict. Children may be separated from their families for hours, days, months – even years. Those who receive early support in tracing their relatives are more likely to be reunified faster.
Children exposed to conflict, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises can suffer severe psychological and social consequences. Mental health and psychosocial support for children affected by emergencies is essential.
In areas affected by conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies, people trust aid workers to assist and protect them. The vast majority do so with professionalism and integrity. But some aid workers abuse their position of power through the sexual exploitation and abuse of those who depend on them, including children. These acts are unacceptable and violate criminal laws.
What we do
UNICEF is a global leader for child protection in emergencies. We partner with governments, international organizations, and communities themselves to keep children from harm’s way and support those who have experienced violence or abuse. We also develop evidence-based technical standards, guidance and advocacy strategies to arm child protection workers on the ground.
Our efforts focus on:
- Providing leadership and coordination for all actors involved in child protection.
- Strengthening child protection systems to prevent and respond to abuse and exploitation in humanitarian situations. We strengthen the social service workforce, support families and equip community-based groups to help keep children protected.
- Monitoring and reporting grave violations of children’s rights in situations of armed conflict. Through the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, UNICEF gathers data on grave violations against children. The documentation and verification of violations help UNICEF and other UN bodies to advocate for the protection of children and the delivery of emergency assistance, engaging with armed forces for children to be treated first and foremost as victims.
- Releasing and reintegrating children associated with armed forces and armed groups. We work with governments and other partners to prevent child recruitment, and to support the release and reintegration of all children who are used by armed forces.
- Preventing and responding to family separation, including by supporting family-based care for all unaccompanied and separated children, and reunifying separated children with their families quickly and safely, wherever possible.
- Addressing gender-based violence by ensuring that high-quality, holistic services are accessible to all survivors.
- Promoting mental health and psychosocial support by providing community-led services adapted to local contexts and implemented with the active participation of affected children, their caregivers and families.
- Preventing child injury and death from explosive weapons and remnants of war by leading technical guidance and programming on risk education, connecting victims to services, and advocating for ratification of and compliance with international humanitarian law.
- Protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers by scaling up safe reporting channels and accessible response services.