Harnessing the Potential of Boys and Girls to Fulfil the Promise of the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have now come into force and there is much hope for their potential to bring about positive change to the lives of millions of people.

When they adopted the new development agenda, Member States pledged to leave no one behind and to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind”. They also reminded us that “there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development”.

The new agenda is set to transform a world confronted with challenges on a scale we have not experienced in decades. Violent conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere are disrupting the lives of millions, and continue to fuel the largest movement of people the world has experienced since the Second World War.

Too often during conflict, we think that children are on the periphery of violence. In reality, it is they who are most affected by war, and our efforts to protect them are being seriously challenged. Right now, in countries such as South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and many more, children are killed, maimed, recruited and used as child soldiers, abducted and made victims of sexual violence. Schools and hospitals are under attack, and they have no access to basic life-saving humanitarian assistance.

Children, who represent roughly half the world’s population affected by conflict, largely remain invisible victims. They are, without a doubt, among the most vulnerable and have been left the furthest behind.

Boys and girls affected by armed conflict are also much more than victims of incredibly difficult circumstances. They are key to building the peaceful, strong societies envisioned by the new development agenda. To fulfil the promise of the SDGs, we must harness the potential of boys and girls affected by war.

AN AGENDA THAT TAKES THE NEEDS OF CHILDREN AFFECTED BY ARMED CONFLICT INTO ACCOUNT

Peace, justice and strong institutions are at the heart of the new development agenda. Several goals are related to children, including ensuring quality education and health services, ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and stopping all forms of violence against children.

EDUCATION

The SDGs affirm every child’s right to a quality education. Yet, conflict too often means the end of learning for millions of children.

Schools are destroyed or damaged, and children forced to abandon their homes rarely find a safe place to continue their education during their displacement. For example, in Syria to date, an estimated 5,000 schools have been fully destroyed and close to a thousand more have been damaged since the beginning of the conflict. Over 60 per cent of refugee children from Syria do not have access to education. In Yemen, over 500 schools have already been damaged or destroyed during aerial bombardments or ground offensives. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that a third of the country’s children have been out of school since air strikes began in March 2015. Elsewhere, thousands of schools have closed their doors because of insecurity, interrupting the education of millions of boys and girls.

With protracted conflicts, the education of entire generations is at risk. This is why providing education during emergencies must be a priority. If children were able to continue learning in times of war, countries would be better equipped to rebound and build a durable peace. Similarly, we must prioritize rebuilding schools once peace is achieved. Experience shows that it can take decades to reinstall skilled teachers and the physical infrastructure required to provide a quality education.

Investment in education is essential to fulfil the promise of the SDGs. We cannot expect children to participate in the development of their countries if they do not have basic skills. Without education, development will be hampered, and economic opportunities will remain few and far between, fuelling grievances and new cycles of instability.

SDG 4 reminds us that we need to “promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. This is especially important for children recruited and used as child soldiers or whose education was interrupted for so long that going back to a regular school might be difficult or impossible.

Child soldiers are often forced to commit violent acts. For these children, going back to their communities or back to school might not be an option. They may have a hard time finding their place in society once their ordeal is over. If we do not promote their reintegration, and help them find ways to contribute to their communities through vocational training opportunities, these boys and girls may grow up to contribute to the stalling or, worse, the reversal of development.

Extensive resources are required to support the release and reintegration of former child soldiers, with special attention needing to be paid to the needs of girls. Providing financial support to reintegration programmes must be a key factor for the development programmes in post-conflict situations.

HEALTHY LIVES

Health services save and sustain lives. Today’s armed conflicts increasingly leave hospitals in the direct line of fire. Attacks on hospitals, health workers and patients strike at the heart of the protection of children affected by armed conflict, and force doctors and medical personnel to flee, depriving communities of their vital expertise when it is most needed. Violence perpetuated against health-care facilities and personnel has a significant effect, causing dramatic increases in the mortality rate of patients, including, of course, children.

Rebuilding health infrastructure and bringing back doc­ tors and nurses to post-conflict communities can take years. As a result, the health of boys and girls is affected and so is the country’s development.

To fulfil the development agenda’s call to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, protecting hospitals and health services in times of conflict must be a priority.

DECENT WORK FOR ALL AND THE PROHIBITION OF THE RECRUITMENT AND USE OF CHILD SOLDIERS

In the past two decades, the protection of children affected by armed conflict has been firmly placed on the agenda of the United Nations highest bodies.

Over the years, tools have been developed and resolutions adopted to form the core of a strong framework to address violations against children, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Our work and advocacy are starting to bear fruit and there is now an emerging consensus among Member States that children do not belong in Government security forces in conflict.

In March 2014, I launched the campaign “Children, Not Soldiers”, to build on that consensus and work closely with Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, the last eight States identified by the Secretary-General for the recruitment of children in their security forces.

The progress has been encouraging, but our work continues. So far, Chad has put in place all the measures required to prevent the recruitment of children and has been removed from the Secretary-General’s list. The campaign has also helped to significantly reduce the number of verified cases of recruitment and use of children in some countries. However, despite encouraging advances early on, conflict has erased all progress accomplished in Yemen and South Sudan.

This year, I will continue to support the Member States concerned by the campaign to help them put in place the required measures to protect boys and girls from recruitment and use. The momentum generated by the campaign has also opened new avenues of engagement with non-state armed groups, especially those active in countries concerned by “Children, Not Soldiers”.

With the support of the international community, the goal of ending the recruitment and use of children could finally be within reach. It is now our common responsibility to dedicate the necessary attention and resources to this problem so that we do not lose an opportunity to accomplish this development objective.

PEACEFUL, INCLUSIVE SOCIETIES AND THE END OF ALL FORMS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST AND TORTURE OF CHILDREN

Grievances ferment if judges do not adjudicate them equitably. Job opportunities disappear if business is guided by corruption.

Without law and accountability, there is no sustainable development. Our efforts to prevent conflict and improve education and health, for example, could be in vain. That is how critical justice and accountability are to our work. They are also vitally important to provide the protection to children by ensuring that violations are not repeated.

Ensuring accountability for violations against children is the best way to prevent their recurrence. Accountability comes in many forms, but Governments bear the primary responsibility for protecting their civilians and ensuring justice. States must adopt clear legislation and issue command orders to their security forces to protect civilians, and in particular take precautionary measures to avoid harm to children. All crimes must be investigated promptly and effectively, and prosecutions must be pursued.

The SDGs are poised to make a real difference in the lives of, I hope, millions of children affected by armed conflict. It is now our collective duty to join forces to ensure that all these boys and girls from Afghanistan to South Sudan to Colombia will grow up to live and contribute to the potential for meaningful change brought about by the new development agenda.

Originally published in the UN Chronicle – The Magazine of the United Nations