children in conflict

Almost one third of the world’s states face violent internal ethnic and civil conflict, making these problems a pressing security issue for international agendas. The number of civilian casualties involved is increasing too, and more alarming is the amount of these casualties that are children – with around 2 million killed, 4-5 million displaced, 12 million homeless, 1 million disabled and 10 million psychologically traumatized from conflict during the last decade. They not only come under fire as civilians, but as child soldiers too, and though in 2002 a convention on the rights of children was ratified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the international community to protect children in conflict areas, and (among other points) “Condemn the targeting of children in situations of armed conflict” and: “Condemn with the gravest concern the recruitment . . . . of children in hostilities by armed groups”, children are still heavily involved in war today. An estimated 70 000 soldiers in the Burmese national army are children – 20% of the army’s entire troop population. Other ethnic groups fighting for independence or autonomy in Burma are involved in child recruiting however, according to a Human Rights Watch report in 2002 entitled “My gun was as tall as me” Burma is believed to have more child soldiers than any other country in the world. Burma is not alone. In the Democratic republic of Congo, it was estimated by Amnesty international that between 2004-2005 “at least 30 000 child soldiers were attached to the armed forces and armed groups of eastern DRC, either as soldiers, porters, domestic servants or sexual slaves”.

These atrocities still continue today. Children endure beatings and systematic humiliation during training, facing even harsher penalties if they try to escape. Those who are demobilized, suffer inadequate provision of vocational and educational facilities, making it almost impossible for reintegration into normal society and rendering them near powerless to being forced to returning to their former lives at war. Schools are shut down due to the danger or lack of government money for rebuilding, and a child’s chances of growing up with proper education in a conflict country, soon are next to none. Landmines are also a threat (widely used throughout conflict in Africa and Asia) with someone being injured or killed by a landmine somewhere in the world every 30 minutes, according to Clear Path International, an organisation serving landmine and bomb accident survivors and their families. Children may be too young to read, or illiterate, voiding signs warning them of the presence of landmines. They are also far more likely to die from the injuries caused by an explosion than are adults. Few of those that survive will even receive proper prosthesis.

Life is hard for children in conflict countries. Uganda and its 21 year conflict in its Northern regions has seen lives destroyed and children’s futures shattered and “one of the highest rates of soldier usage in the world” according to Human Rights Watch and the Coalition to Prevent Child Soldiers. Reconciliation is still happening in Rwanda after the genocide of 1994, and political transitions are under way in Burundi which also could see tension. Sudan also suffers from ethnic and religious division, which is causing multiple conflicts, and Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to argue over demarcation lines after Eritrea’s declaration of independence in 1993 which saw them engaging in war during the end of the 90’s, and could again cause conflict today. The almost constant political unrest in Zimbabwe undoubtedly threatens their child population, and the possibility of a civil war caused by food shortages is imminent.

Understanding the third world’s traditional methods for conflict resolution – formerly with traditional weapons and the mediation of tribal elders – instead of initiating our own methods, would help to solve many of their problems. Conflict in the Darfur region in Africa introduced semi-automatic weapons to local tribes, leading them to solve simple conflicts with destructive modern weaponry. While sanctions and embargos are being made by the UN, the international community and its governments are not only failing to enforce them, but often involved in assisting the sale, financing and shipping of the arms as well.

In spite of all this, many non-governmental organisations are coming to the aid of children caught in these conflicts. Refugees International generates humanitarian assistance and protection throughout the world, and works to end the conditions that force people from their homes. Currently they are operating missions in many countries within Africa and Asia, encompassing hard-hit and problematic areas like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia. RI also helps with the massive AIDS problem in Southern Africa, where the epidemic is growing at the fastest rate in the world. UNAIDS statistics had 5.3 million Southern Africans HIV positive at the end of 2003 and 28% of all of the population, infected with AIDS. The life expectancy of a child is greatly affected by the epidemic, with conflict often cutting off sufficient healthcare and access to AIDS education. The UN too, has set out a list of guidelines and passed treaties protecting the third world’s states, with a focus on stemming the flow of weapons and funding for defence spending in developing nations, while promoting more respect for child rights. A special UN representative for children in armed conflict was recently appointed too. Organisations such as No More Landmines, Action for children in Conflict (UK based charities) and UNICEF and the Red Cross are assisting the third world’s children with rehabilitation and protection from landmines, forced mobilization and displacement. Currently too, World Vision operates a center in the problematic north of Uganda, including a counselling center for former child soldiers, as well as temporary shelter for abducted children, AIDS education and medical treatment. Unfortunately however, foreign government’s interests will continue to play a role in sustaining some conflicts, as they compete for Africa’s oil and other resources in the future.

written  for a competition hosted by the guardian newspaper.

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