The Effects of War and Violence on Children

Kadidia V. Doumbia,
Specialist in Gender and Education
Director-at-Large International Society for Language Studies/ISLS
Member of the Alumni Advisory Board/AAB - Excelsior College

It can be very stressful to watch television today. Many news reports are about civil wars or natural disasters. Movies depict terrible scenarios to keep the audience’s attention. Children are living in or witnessing violent environments, which represents a continuous emotional and psychological harassment.

The Culture of Violence

From Darfur to Mali, children are profoundly affected by situations of crisis they don’t understand. The bullying that has become a serious issue in schools worldwide might be considered a reflection of the larger society in microcosm. In response, governments are working to educate parents, students, and teachers about ways to prevent bullying and alleviate its damaging consequences.

The Impact of Violence

Destruction of basic infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools, prevents the civil population, especially children, from receiving minimum care and protection. In the northern part of Mali, for instance, schools were destroyed during the 2013 war against the Jihadists and there is no plan in the near future to rebuild them due to lack of funds and a situation on the ground that is still unresolved.

The cost of war is heavy on children, with over one million victims of child trafficking, more than 20 million children displaced from their homes, 250,000 children experiencing forced recruitment by armies and rebel groups, and an estimated 2 million children killed in wars over the past decade. Children are paying a high cost.

Child Soldiers

Children have been forced to be active participants in armed conflicts almost everywhere in the world. Some of them are known to be under the age of 10. Most of them come from poor families living in combat zones. At least 19 countries still conscript child soldiers. Armies and rebel groups have recruited over 250,000 children in the past decade. UNESCO estimates that 28 million children don’t go to school in order to avoid forced enrollment in armed groups.

Child soldiers are abused by adults, who punish them to make sure they do not try to escape. During a war, children suffer physical injuries as much as adult soldiers. Lack of food, malnutrition, and illness, are part of their daily lives. They are used as support teams (porters, spies, scouts, cooks, or bodyguards), sexual slaves, and combatants. Mistreatment is their daily way of life and many of them are forced to use drugs. This is a violation of basic human rights and a violation of family rights, as most of the time children are stolen from their families.

The future of any society is its youth; by destroying it in this way, the community is taking large steps backward from a better quality of life for its citizens. Children are supposed to be protected by society and not used by it. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 3, states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Article 4 states, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” The Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts that: “The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” Even though many resolutions have been adopted at the United Nations to protect children in a situation of crisis, these laws prove difficult to enforce and the physical and emotional suffering experienced by these children has lasting repercussions for them.

Organizations such as Child Soldiers International are advocating to make 18 be the minimum recruitment age in all countries, on a voluntary basis or not. At this age, these young people would have had a chance to finish a basic education. Many governments, including the Chadian government, have signed an agreement with the United Nations to stop recruiting children for their armies. This is a huge step along the right path concerning this issue. Nevertheless, the main problem on the ground is to ensure that the agreement is respected.

During a post-crisis period, for those who are lucky enough to be integrated into the school system, behavioral and adaptation disorders, paired with very poor school performance, often are observed. While child soldiers will be wounded for life, with the support of the whole society, their families, and educators, they may be able to enjoy a decent life again.

Children’s well-being should be the concern of the entire society; it cannot only be the government’s responsibility. Therefore, how can we implement quality education during a crisis and a post-crisis environment? The political will of the local authorities is critical, taking into account administrative constraints, availability of funds, and the purpose of the educational program to implement. The level of accountability expected from each stakeholder should be clearly defined.

Education and a Crisis

Quality education based on realistic needs opens a door for hope and stabilization in a target area. To achieve access to education in a situation of crisis or post-crisis for children, participation by the entire community is necessary. Many times, volunteer involvement is instrumental to the success of such enterprises. In India, the Annual Status of Education Report explained how their program partnered with more than 25,000 volunteers and thus were able to offer access to education to children in 16,000 villages.

A safe and protective educational environment for children involved in traumatic situations is mandatory. Child soldiers and children in war zones need a secure environment and the opportunity to go back to school, especially during the post-crisis period.

The Child in the Community

One of the major issues for children and teenagers who have been child soldiers is they often cannot go back to their families and communities because they had been forced to hurt their own people. The post-conflict period leaves many of them homeless and lost in a society they don’t know at all and that does not want them anymore. Most governments are overwhelmed by numerous problems to address during the post-crisis period and the child soldier issue is often one of the last concerns to be discussed. In Liberia, for instance, a young man called Sesay will never be able to go back to a normal life and his addiction to drugs further complicates the situation. He feels abandoned by the government.

The security of children, especially on school grounds, has been a pressing concern. In April 2014, more than 200 Nigerian school girls were abducted in the northern part of Nigeria, bringing to the world’s attention in a most tragic way the humanitarian problems affecting youth and girls in particular. In many conflicts, schools are destroyed or occupied by armed groups, leaving children with no access to safe education.

If world leaders understood that just six days of military spending worldwide would be enough to send all the world’s children to school, we would be able to take a huge step forward (http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/2011-03/six-days-military-spending-would-send-all-worlds-children-school). Unfortunately, only 1.4% of humanitarian aid was invested in education in 2015.

Resolution 1314 passed by the UN Security Council, which was followed by the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, needs to be enforced. Resolution 1261, pushed by Special Representative Olara Otunnu and adopted by the UN Security Council “condemns the targeting of children in situations of armed conflict including killing and maiming, sexual violence, abduction and forced displacement, recruitment and use of children in armed conflict in violation of international law and attacks on places that usually have a significant presence of children such as schools and hospitals—and calls on all parties concerned to put an end to such practices.”