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Children affected by conflict ask decision-makers to protect them. They want to feel safe in their homes, with their families and friends, writes Inger Ashing.
Hassan, 14, is expected to go to school, see friends and experience the ups and downs of adolescence. But when conflict erupted in Sudan earlier this year, his childhood was taken away from him.
From the refugee shelter he now calls home, he described the nightmares he has about the death and destruction he witnessed: “I dream of the tall building that was destroyed, the people blown to pieces and this bomb that fell in a friend, this destroyed him completely.
Hassan is one of the children our psychologists support in Sudan. They tell us about the children’s discomfort: they have nightmares, they can’t sleep; wet the bed.
Hassan is just one of 7,600 children forced to flee their homes every day since the war broke out in April.
Violence, military detentions and children held hostage are increasing
Meanwhile, in Gaza, entire families are killed, as in the tragic case of my beloved colleague Sameh. An increasing number of people, including children, are left without surviving family members.
Another colleague told me about a four-year-old girl who showed up at a checkpoint all alone, trembling, unable to speak, with cold, clammy skin: all signs of shock.
Violence is also increasing in the West Bank, where 69 children have been killed in just over two months. This has been the bloodiest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the United Nations began recording casualties in 2005.
Since October 7, we have also seen an unprecedented increase in Israeli military detention of Palestinian children: 245 in just two months in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and now reports emerge of more in Gaza.
There were also Israeli children held hostage whose release we asked for.
How far have we come, really?
Next year marks 100 years since the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations – adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, written by Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb.
The child disasters we have witnessed this year in Sudan and Gaza – as well as the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria that affected 6.2 million children and the record rise in people displaced by conflict across the world – force us to ask ourselves how far we have come.
In Gaza, almost no aid has reached people in need and nowhere is safe for children. This will not change unless there is a ceasefire.
Despite the level of suffering in Sudan, the UN’s humanitarian response plan is not even 40% funded. The same is true in Afghanistan, where more than a third of the children we interviewed were forced to work due to growing poverty.
In Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, Rohingya children are now eating 20% less than last year due to cuts in food rations.
When we remind ourselves that nearly one in six children worldwide grows up in a conflict zone – and that these needs will only increase – we must admit that the world is failing to protect children’s rights.
Respect the law and protect children, everywhere
Children affected by conflict ask decision-makers to protect them. They want to feel safe in their homes, with their families and friends.
Children like 17-year-old Colombian Violeta, the first girl to speak at the UN Security Council earlier this year, who spoke about the need for children to be involved in peace processes.
Moments like this make me proud to lead this organization, but it’s difficult to have a positive attitude about next year and the future without a seismic shift occurring.
This means putting children’s rights first by supporting international humanitarian law and standards to protect children in armed conflict.
Accountability for crimes against children must be made a priority on both international and national agendas.
And we must urgently increase funding and flexible resources to strengthen child protection, prevent serious violations and support communities who have suffered such violations.
The same goes for funding for people affected by other life-altering horrors, such as earthquakes and increasingly frequent climate disasters.
In Violeta’s words: “A country that does not allow its children, adolescents and young people to participate and build peace is a country that condemns itself to repeat a future at war.”
Inger Ashing is CEO of Save the Children International.
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