Protecting children in conflict – a moral imperative

It has been a rewarding, challenging year.

On January 1, 2018, when I became the head of UNICEF, I felt privileged to begin leading an organization with a noble mission: protecting the rights of every child. I thought then – and am even more convinced now – that there is no more important cause than children and young people.

But 2018 provided some sobering moments as I visited UNICEF offices on the front lines of some of the world’s most intense armed conflicts. In Mali, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, I saw the shocking impact of those conflicts.

Nothing quite prepares you for the reality on the ground.

The stories of the children and young people I met on my travels confirmed, for me, that the international community is failing to protect far too many children under attack in the world’s war zones. We cannot accept that failure of protection. Violence against children must never become “the new normal.”

A child pushes another on a wheelchair amidst the rubble of a destroyed city.
© UNICEF/UN0264239/Syrian Arab Republic/SanadikiChildren in Douma, East Ghouta. The siege on East Ghouta lasted almost seven years. Douma is home to more than 250,000 people living amidst large scale urban destruction, wide contamination with explosive remnants of war and limited access to essential services.

Violence on a horrific scale

Still, the sad truth is that targeted and indiscriminate attacks are killing and injuring children around the globe on a horrific scale. At the same time, children are exposed to violations ranging from sexual and gender-based violence to abduction and to recruitment into armed forces and groups.

There are few safe spaces left for children and young people in battle-scarred cities and towns.

Essential services for children have been devastated in countries affected by conflict. In many places, hospitals, schools, and water and sanitation systems – all essential to children’s survival and well-being – are on the brink of collapse.

The numbers are hard to comprehend. In Afghanistan, violence and bloodshed remain a daily occurrence, with some 5,000 children killed or maimed in 2017 and the first three quarters of 2018. In Somalia, more than 1,200 children have been abducted this year. In Yemen, a child dies every 10 minutes from a preventable disease. And, tragically, the list goes on.

An armed soldier with a vest bearing the words 'Tiger Division' looks on as a child walks by.
© UNICEF/UN0236842/South Sudan/RichWau Shilluk, a town in South Sudan has been reduced to dust, as ongoing conflict has seen the complete destruction of homes, the school and hospital. The water system was completely destroyed, and the town has no services whatsoever – no hospital, no school, no clean water.

Stories behind the statistics

Such statistics are heart-breaking. But the stories behind the numbers really tell you what children and families must endure in the midst of conflict.

This is the story I heard from John, age 16, in Juba, South Sudan. By the time John was 10 years old, both of his parents had died. At that point he moved in with relatives, but he barely had enough food to survive. So, when someone from an armed group offered John food and a place to sleep, he didn’t hesitate. He became a child soldier, was forced to do things no child should do, and saw his friends killed in front of him.

Or the story of Um Mohammed, a mother of five who I met in Douma, Syria. Um Mohammed and her family lived under siege at home for nearly seven years until the day they finally fled for their lives. Her husband was injured and can barely work. Her youngest daughter, age 4, lives with a disability and needs medicine, which the family struggles to afford.

“We only have money for food and water,” Um Mohammed told me. She added that all her children have lost years of education or had to drop out of school early, clouding their prospects for the future.

A very thin baby, with a bandaged face, in his mother's arms.
© UNICEF/UN0238124/TremeauHawa Abdiraman, in the arms of his mother Khadidja after they arrived at the Therapeutic Nutritional Unit treating severe malnutrition at Mao hospital in Chad.

Stories of hope

Despite the pain and suffering they have experienced, many of the children and young people I met this year also told stories of extraordinary strength – stories of hope.

In South Sudan, for example, John’s story continues. Shot and wounded in the conflict, he received the medical treatment he needed with help from UNICEF staff. After recovering, he moved to the UNICEF-supported centre for former child soldiers in Juba. There, he underwent a two-year programme to rebuild his life.

John now goes to school. He told me he hopes to become a doctor.

In Syria, 22-year-old Hikma told me she had designed a special leg brace after her sister was hit by shrapnel. This leg brace will allow her sister to walk with a walking device. Hikma has patented the design and plans to make it available for others injured in war.

And at a psychosocial support centre in Aden, Yemen, a young girl named Fatima talked to me about fleeing the violence in Hudaydah, her hometown. She said she was now learning to reconnect with her peers and showed me a drawing she had made. It was a picture of a girl sitting in a park on a sunny day.

Staff members at the centre recalled that when Fatima first arrived, she drew pictures of guns and blood.

An injured girl with a bandaged forehead lying on a stretcher looks up.
© UNICEF/UN0216979/Yemen/AyyashiAn injured girl is being treated at Althawra Hospital in Yemen. She was injured along with her brothers and her uncle, while the family was trying to relocate farther from the fighting that same day in Aljah area, Bait Alfaqih district, Hudaydah.

Confronting the crisis

There is nothing inevitable about the suffering of children and young people like John, Hikma and Fatima, or parents like Um. We know how to protect and support children and families in armed conflict.

We can do this.

We can care for children who have suffered abuses. We can help reintegrate children into their families and societies after they are released from armed groups. We can mitigate the threat of sexual and gender-based violence. We can create safe spaces to heal children from trauma. We can give girls and boys the opportunity to pursue their education and their dreams.

What we need are the will and the resources to do so. UNICEF and our partners are on the ground in virtually every conflict zone. With the right level of support, we can scale up our efforts to create a more protective environment for children and young people at risk.

Time to take a stand

As 2019 begins, we face stark reminders that the world must do more to uphold the rights of children trapped in today’s wars. The new year will mark 30 years since governments signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and 70 years since they adopted the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

These milestones underscore the moral crisis we face amid continuing attacks on children in conflicts. They also provide an opportunity to confront that crisis with the firm conviction that all children have the right to survive and thrive – and that even in war, there are rules to protect civilians.

There could hardly be a more critical time to assert those principles. More armed conflicts are raging today than at any time in the last three decades. Many of them are seemingly endless.

Ultimately, children need peace. But while efforts to end wars continue, those who fight must be held to account for their actions. And the rest of us must reject the idea that attacks on children are a normal part of war. We all have a role to play – from national governments and the international community, to those who influence warring parties, to civil society and religious leaders.

It is time for everyone to stand up and speak out. Let us protect children. Enough is enough. Stop attacks on children now.


Henrietta H. Fore is the Executive Director of UNICEF.


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