On January 29, UNICEF released its most recent report detailing the plight of millions of children around the world. Afshan Khan, UNICEF director of emergency programs, spoke at the launch, making this point clear, “from deadly natural disasters to brutal conflicts and fast-spreading epidemics, children across the world are facing a new generation of humanitarian crises.”
With more than one in ten children now living in countries affected by violence and humanitarian disasters, 2015 will mark UNICEF’s largest financial appeal ever. This sad reality is a clear sign that children continue to bear the brunt of humanitarian crises. Most frightening, perhaps, they have become targets during conflicts. In contemporary conflicts, where confrontations between professional armies are less frequent, civilians have become deliberate targets.
Iraq and Syria: Losing Generations
We see it daily in the media: the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) knows no limits when it comes to committing abuses against civilians. In the first week of February, the United Nations accused the Islamist group of selling, recruiting, crucifying, and killing children in Iraq. Some children are used as suicide bombers or human shields, girls are sold as sex slaves, and youths belonging to minorities are murdered in the most brutal ways. Life under ISIS’s rule is a life of restrictions. In a manifesto aimed at women living under their rule, ISIS says girls may marry at the age of nine and should only be educated until the age of 15.
In Syria, war has become the new normal for children, said Afshan Khan when he introduced the UNICEF report. With more than eight million children affected by the conflict, the UN agency warns that a whole generation of Syrian children is at risk of being lost. Inside Syria, they witness violence and death on a daily basis, and in refugee camps the situation is so dire that many suffer from diseases and malnutrition. War is stealing these children’s futures.
Education Under Attack
The creation of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) in 2010 sent a clear warning to the world: for the past decade, non-state actors have been increasingly targeting educational institutions. The number of attacks against schools, and especially on girls who wish to attend these institutions, is on the rise. According to a report published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 70 countries experienced such attacks between 2009 and 2004.
Only some of these attacks made the news. In Pakistan last December, the Taliban targeted a school in Peshawar and killed 132 children. Nigeria also erupted in the headlines last April when Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden,” kidnapped 276 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria. Some of the girls managed to escape, but the others have been married and forced to convert to Islam. In Afghanistan, the UN reported more than 1,000 attacks on education between 2009 and 2012.
The ferocity of the Islamist militant groups has forced many schools to close, thereby making girls vulnerable to forced marriage and sexual slavery, and boys to recruitment by terrorist groups. Because education is the key to freedom, emancipation, development, and wealth, extremist groups often see it as a threat to their power.
South Sudan: Child Soldiers
According to UNICEF, “children are increasingly vulnerable to recruitment and use by armed groups as conflicts around the world become more brutal, intense, and widespread.” South Sudan is certainly an example of this ugly phenomenon.
When the country gained independence in 2011, people were filled with hope and expectations. Four years later, two million people have been forced off their homes and as many as 50,000 may have been killed as result of the civil war that began in December 2013. The lack of security makes children particularly vulnerable to being recruited by groups as soldiers, cooks, carriers, or wives. According to UNICEF, as many as 12,000 children may have been recruited, including by the South Sudanese army.
Proof that the problem is widespread: over the coming weeks, 3,000 former child soldiers will embark on the long and difficult road toward reintegration into South Sudanese society. The demobilization process follows a peace agreement signed between the government of South Sudan and the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction. UNICEF will run the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration), and are calling it “the largest ever demobilizations of children.”
How many of these 3,000 children will actually manage to reintegrate civilian life for good is hard to say. The challenge for former child soldiers is to return home and find a protective environment. Yet with South Sudan still at war, how much normalcy and protection can they find? As Oluku Andrew Holt, South Sudan’s Child DDR Coordinator, rightly stated, “as long as there is no peace in South Sudan, children will be seen carrying weapons.”
Where There Is Hope
Children and youth can show extraordinary resilience and courage in the face of adversity. Some of the girls who managed to escape Boko Haram are returning to school. “I want to keep improving so I can go back and help Chibok,” said one of them. Girls and women raped by rebels or soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo become daring activists against gender violence. Among those 3,000 former child soldiers, many want to go to school to prove that they are worth something and can contribute to society. “They are the future of South Sudan,” Brigadier General Daniel Abudhok Apiokuach stated. He is right.
Commenting on the Peshawar massacre, Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai stated, “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters – but we will never be defeated.” It is our responsibility not to let them down. Wherever we are, we must continually denounce atrocities, and name and shame governments and non-state group who fail to respect national and international laws. The so-called international community must constantly remind governments of their duty to protect civilians and children in particular. No country can progress if it does not care for its children.
Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Children's Rights, Child Soldier, Education, Pakistan, United Nations, Sexual Violence, Child Slavery, Nigeria, Boko Haram, Terrorism, Congo