The lost generation
Wars continue, and so does unhealed psychological trauma for children. Subjected to ‘toxic stress’, a condition triggered by extreme periods of adversity, children of war-ridden countries find themselves in the middle of conflict zones, often in close proximity to their own neighbourhoods
As armed conflict rages on across the planet, children end up paying the highest price. Young lives cut short, families separated, futures clouded by pain, sorrow and loss; the trauma of war hangs over a generation of children.
They are the ones experiencing the highest number of “grave violations” in conflicts verified by the United Nations in 2022, with atrocities between Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, and in Congo and Somalia putting most youngsters in peril, the UN children’s agency stated recently.
UNICEF also expressed particular concern about their plight in Haiti, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ukraine, where Russia has been put on the UN blacklist.
“Grave violations” include the recruitment and use of children by combatants, killings and injuries, sexual violence, abductions, and attacks on schools and hospitals.
About 468 million or more than one in six children worldwide live in areas affected by armed conflict, according to new reports by Save the Children published this year.
As world leaders gathered for the Oslo Conference on Protecting Children in Armed Conflict, new data by the children’s charity shows that there has been a 2.8% rise in children who live within 50 kms or less from one or more armed conflicts compared to the previous year (455 million children in 2021 compared to 468 million in 2022). This would mark the double number of children affected by war since the mid-1990s.
It’s also a 28% increase since 2015 when world leaders agreed on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 ambitious objectives focused on protecting the planet, ending poverty and promoting peace.
Nearly 200 million children are living in the world’s most lethal war zones, the highest number in over a decade.
Around the world, 89.2 million adolescent girls currently live in conflict zones — that’s almost one in five adolescent girls (aged 10-17 years).
Globally, girls affected by conflict are more than 20% more likely to marry as children than those living outside of conflict zones.
Children living in war-affected countries live in constant fear, experiencing grave violations of their rights, with serious impacts on their mental health. Many children living in lethal war zones are already at risk of climate change and facing unprecedented levels of hunger as well.
Armed conflicts destroy their homes and kill their loved ones. It forces children into combat, and subjects girls to the horrors of rape and abduction.
Omar Abdi, UNICEF’s deputy executive director, told the UN Security Council this year in July that more than 27,000 grave violations, up from 24,000 the previous year, are the highest number verified by the UN since its monitoring reports came into effect in 2005. The number of conflict situations “of concern” was also the highest — at 26.
Since the report, Abdi said, a serious conflict has erupted in Sudan where over one million children have been displaced by violent conflict and the UN has received reports that hundreds have been killed and injured. He also said UNICEF expects an increase in Palestinian children affected due to recent escalations in violence.
The UN special envoy for children in armed conflict, Virginia Gamba, told the Council that the 27,180 grave violations in 2022 were carried out against 18,890 children and included 8,620 who were killed or injured, 7,622 who were recruited or used by governments or armed groups in conflicts, 3,985 who were abducted, 1,165, almost all of them girls, who were raped, forced into marriage or sexual slavery or sexually assaulted.
The United Nations also verified attacks on 1,163 schools and 647 hospitals, a 112% increase from 2021, she said.
After the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, the former’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine devastated schools and kindergartens throughout the country. Since February 2022, over 3,790 educational facilities have been damaged or destroyed.
Russian forces occupied schools, turning them into bases and barracks, where soldiers took shelter, launched military operations, stored weapons, and parked armoured vehicles.
Research reports were quoted as showing that in Europe, the number of children exposed to conflict quadrupled in just one year, from two to nine million, fuelled by the war in Ukraine.
Education in Ukraine has been under attack since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 led to further attacks on and military use of schools, which, along with the overall effects of war, have severely disrupted Ukrainian children’s education, already suffering from school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many students from schools that were damaged or destroyed had to continue their studies in other schools, studying in shifts or remotely, which has eroded the quality of education. Russian forces’ attacks on power infrastructure and consequent electricity and internet outages have frequently impeded remote learning.
At the close of 2021, the UN highlighted regions where armed conflict had placed civilian lives in danger. And wherever people are in crisis, children are the most vulnerable of all — whether they’re caught in the crossfire, forced to participate, or harmed in the extensive aftermath with one of the major unknowns of the war being the number of children orphaned or separated from their parents.
The crisis regions included Syria and Yemen, due to long-running violent conflict and exacerbated risk from threats like famine; Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Sudan, where fresh unrest caused serious instability in 2021; Mali and the Central African Republic, where children and adults remained at high risk from violence of armed conflict, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.
For Iraq, the numbers are staggering, with over 9,000 children killed or maimed (3,119 killed and 5,938 maimed) from 2008 to the end of 2022.
Other danger zones included the scenes of deadly bomb and terror attacks in Niger; Israel and Palestine, where escalating violence killed hundreds of people; South Sudan, where a decade after the country declared independence from Sudan, armed conflict and other factors have left more children in humanitarian need than ever before.
It is also important to mention the Democratic Republic of Congo, where another year of violent attacks against civilians devastated thousands of young lives; Venezuela and Honduras, where fighting involves violent organised crime groups and children are often caught in the crossfire.
Modern-day warfare doesn’t happen in remote battlefields with children at a safe distance away. With a few exceptions, armed conflict no longer plays out across borders, between nations.
In 2022, most armed conflict took place within a specific country, often raging through children’s own neighbourhoods.
The civilian casualty rate as a result of armed conflict can approach 90 per cent, depending on variables. Between 2004 and 2020, more than 1,04,000 children were verified as killed or maimed in situations of armed conflict, reports UNICEF.
Time is dwindling to prevent another “lost generation” — the oft-used expression not only for young lives taken but also for the children who sacrifice their education, passions and friendships to shifting front lines or suffer psychological scars too deep to be healed.
It is important for us, as a community, to give attention to all children caught up in conflict, along with the solidarity and protection that they are entitled to and that they need to rebuild their lives.
Views expressed are personal