In December, Unicef published a report highlighting the immense suffering that children living in conflict zones endured in 2017. Despite the existence of international laws and treaties, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Convention, Unicef reports that child suffering as a result of the conflict is only increasing. The report highlights several conflict zones where there has been particularly immense suffering experienced by children in the last 12 months, which includes The Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, Eastern Ukraine, Myanmar, north-east Nigeria, and Cameroon.
In the report, Unicef said that “2017 has been a devastating year for children trapped in conflicts. They came under attack in spaces where they should be safe – in homes, schools and hospitals and on playgrounds. Children were deliberately targeted in many conflicts: They were used as human shields, killed, maimed, abducted and forced to fight as child soldiers. Millions of children also bore the brunt of diseases brought on by crushing wars.”
This report highlights suffering that is caused by the conflict, like rape or violent attacks and suffering caused as a result of conflict, such as through the inability to access shelter.
That said, children have been killed, raped, abducted, recruited by armed groups, threatened by landmines and other unexploded ordinance. Manuel Fontaine, Unicef’s Director of Emergency Programmes has described the reality of children’s daily life in many of these conflict zones, stating that “Children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools and playgrounds.” Statistics reported by Unicef show that in north-east Nigeria and Cameroon, at least, 135 children were forced by Islamist militants, Boko Haram, to act as suicide bombers, which is almost five times more than in 2016. Meanwhile, in South Sudan, more than 19,000 children were recruited into armed forces and armed groups. Fighting in Yemen has left, by official figures, at least 5,000 children dead or injured, though this number is expected to be much higher than this.
Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said that many of the impacts of conflicts on children cannot be captured by statistics. For instance, children have lost parents, become disabled due to curable illness, and suffer long-term psychological trauma. Dada, a 15-year-old girl who was abducted and raped while held captive by Boko Haram now has a daughter who she is responsible for. She is a mother to her daughter despite the suffering, both mental and physical, that she continues to endure as a result of her abduction, as well as the continuing conflict, “Since I came back…there has been a lot of suffering.” Malnutrition, disease, loss of education, and loss of other aspects of normalcy, such as visiting friends or playing are also results of conflict.
Much of this is related to access or, more accurately, the inability to access. For instance, there is an inability to reach shops due to fighting, thereby resulting in limited access to food, water, and medicines, along with structural damage to the home, which contributes to being unable to shield children from the weather or continued fighting.
Furthermore, in Yemen, conflict and the collapsing health system has resulted in the world’s largest ever cholera outbreak where millions of children are sick, have sick family members or are at risk. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that, as of December 2017, over 1 million people have contracted the disease. Cholera is a containable and treatable disease, yet it has spread with ferocity throughout Yemen. For this to happen many things have to go wrong, and as I am writing this, the World Health Organization (WHO), WTF, and Unicef have released a joint statement regarding the war in Yemen, which has now been going on for over 1,000 days. According to this statement, 11.3 million children are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and will not survive without it, arguing that “Yemen has passed the tipping point into a rapid decline from crisis to deepening catastrophe.”
For children like Dada to suffer from rape, violence, and malnutrition at the hands of militant groups like Boko Haram or for children to contract a preventable, yet deadly disease, which is the case for so many children in Yemen, is truly a tragedy. Concisely put by Fontaine, Unicef’s Director of Emergency Programmes, “We cannot become numb. Such brutality cannot be the new normal.” Children have the right to protection from harm and abuse, from discrimination, as well as access to healthcare, education, family life, and recreation, which many children are not experiencing in their daily reality.
With that said, parties with influence in conflict zones need to use their influence to protect children. All parties within a conflict need to abide by their obligations under international law to end violations against children and against civilian infrastructures where children frequent, including schools and hospitals. The international community via international law must hold parties that do not abide by these obligations accountable.