1.6m children killed in conflicts since 1990
* 20 million children forced to flee homes
* Sexual violence often used as a weapon of war
* Land mines kill 15,000 to 20,000 annually
By Shahzad Raza
ISLAMABAD: Around 1.6 million children have been killed in armed conflict throughout the world since 1990, said the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund’s (UNICEF) report called ‘The State of the World’s Children, 2005’.
The report said in 1996, there were 22 major armed conflicts worldwide. In 2003, there were 19 such conflicts, the second-lowest annual number since 1990.
“For every step forward, there seems to be a step backwards as a new conflict erupts elsewhere. Far from being safe, the world at the beginning of the 21st century appears more driven by conflict and fear than before – and its dominant political discourse seems to be one of war.”
The report observed that children were always among the first affected by conflict. “Armed conflict affects their lives in many ways, and even if they are not killed or injured, they can be orphaned, abducted, raped and left with deep emotional scars from direct exposure to violence or from dislocation and poverty.”
UNICEF said the exact number of children currently caught up in conflict as combatants was unknown, but it was likely to run into hundreds of thousands. Children were conscripted, kidnapped or pressured into joining combat forces.
Not all of them took part in combat, though the proliferation of lightweight weapons has made it possible even for children under 10 to become effective killers, the report added.
The report claimed armed groups and, in some cases, government forces used children because they often prove easier than adults to condition into unthinking obedience and fearless killing. It added that Africa and Asia had the highest numbers of children actively involved in conflict as combatants. It asserted that an estimated 20 million children across the globe had been forced by conflict or human rights violations to leave their homes. As they fled from conflict, families sometimes separated. Left alone, children were more likely to be sexually abused or recruited into combat, the report observed.
Of the 20 million children, who had been forced to flee their homes, around one-third were refugees who had been driven across national borders. The other two-thirds were internally displaced, a proportion that has been rising steadily in parallel with the trend towards civil strife, the report said.
“Sexual violence was often a weapon of war, consciously deployed. It could include rape, mutilation, exploitation and abuse. In the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, it was a deliberate policy to rape teenage girls and women and force them to bear children,” the report observed.
“In addition, the poverty, hunger and insecurity generated by conflict can force children into prostitution. In Colombia, for example, girls as young as 12 have been reported to have submitted sexually to armed forces in order to ensure their families’ safety.” The report concluded that all of these factors increased the likelihood of HIV transmission in conflict zones, while the breakdown of school and health systems inhibited safeguards that could counter these risks. It revealed that landmines claim between 15,000 and 20,000 victims each year. Two-thirds of the 65 countries that suffered mine casualties between 2002 and 2003 had not experienced active conflict in that period.
It said that there was a growing consensus against the use of children as soldiers. In 2000, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Children raised the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities from 15 to 18 years.
Giving the example of Palestine, it said that more than one generation of Palestinian children were being denied their right to basic education. School infrastructure was constantly at risk, at least 269 schools had been damaged between September 2000 and June 2004, nine schools had been completely closed, three of them were currently being used as military outposts and an additional 275 schools were in the line of confrontation.
It claimed that in war-ravaged Afghanistan, a UNICEF-supported demobilisation programme had assisted 2,203 children in eight provinces since its launch in February 2004. In Afghanistan during 2002 more than three million children had been successfully enrolled in schools after years of warfare and educational neglect.
“If we are to safeguard children from the brutality of armed conflicts, a number of actions must be pursued, provided the international community has the political and economic will to implement them,” it emphasised.