A new report commissioned by an international children’s charity has revealed that 420 million children, or nearly one in five worldwide, lived in “areas affected by armed conflict and war” in 2017— a twenty-year high.
Save the Children (STC) commissioned the report and the Peace Research Institute Oslo conducted it, releasing this year’s findings Feb. 14.
According to a release from Save the Children, today’s conflicts are usually “protracted, urban and fought among civilian populations.” In addition, combatants increasingly flout international rules and norms, leading to more children being forced to live and grow up in conflict areas.
The report states that 142 million children are living in high-intensity conflict zones, defined as an area with more than 1,000 battle-related deaths in a year. Nearly 90 percent of Yemen’s children, 70 percent of Syria’s children and 60 percent of Somalia’s children were living in close proximity to high-intensity conflict in 2017, the report reads.
International agreements such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child include prohibitions on indiscriminate attacks and provisions for the protection of education for children, an obligation STC says is ignored in many modern conflict zones.
“It is shocking that in the twenty-first century we are going backwards on principles and moral standards that are so simple – children and civilians should never be targeted,” said Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children.
Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia were the ten worst conflict-affected countries for children in 2017, the report states. All of these countries are located in the Middle East or Africa.
Keyan Salarkia, one of the report’s co-writers, told Vatican News that 870,000 children under the age of five have died in those countries during the last five years alone.
“The hospital waiting rooms were full of sick, starving children; so weak they didn’t even have the energy to cry,” Save the Children’s Chief Executive Helle Thorning-Schmidt said of her observation of the Yemeni conflict. A four-year-old civil war has plunged a vast majority of the nation’s 29 million people into pre-famine conditions; between 13,500 and 80,000 people have been killed so far and more than 2 million have been displaced from their homes.
The United Nations defines six “grave violations” against children, which include: being killed, maimed, recruited by armed groups or abducted, sexual violence, attacks on schools and denial of humanitarian aid. According to UN data grave violations against children rose worldwide from just under 10,000 in 2010 to a record number of more than 25,000 in 2017, though the report admits that the numbers may be significantly underreported. Similarly, the report notes that there are currently no comprehensive, reliable data on child casualties in conflicts around the world.
STC highlighted a general failure to uphold internationally-agreed on standards of conduct in conflict; a failure to hold perpetrators of violations to account; and a lack of practical action on the ground to protect children and support their recovery as three main dimensions of the “war on children.”
In terms of emerging solutions to these problems, the full report details a number of potential steps that can be taken to improve the lives of children in conflict zones. STC calls for the UN General Assembly to establish “a standing impartial, independent and international mechanism that can be activated to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses, notably children’s rights.”
Pope Francis has made advocacy for children in conflict zones a key focus during his pontificate, highlighting the plight of those suffering in places such as Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.
Most recently, the pope called for prayers for the people of Yemen “because there are children who are hungry, who are thirsty, who have no medicine, and are in danger of death.”
“The cry of these children and their parents rises before God,” he said.
“I appeal to the interested parties and to the international community to urgently encourage compliance with the agreements reached, to ensure the distribution of food and to work for the good of the population.”
Francis said he is following the humanitarian crisis in Yemen with great concern, noting that the people of the country are exhausted by the conflict and the lack of access to food.