Children attend school at Harsham Camp for internally displaced people in Erbil, Iraq. UNICEF/Wathiq Khuzaie
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.
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 fulfill 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.
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.
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.
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 fulfill 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, fueling 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.
The reintegration of former child soldiers is essential for the well-being of conflict-affected children but also beneficial for the community as a whole and must be prioritized. Boys and girls released may have a hard time finding their place in society once their ordeal is over. If we do not promote their non-discriminatory 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.
ACHIEVE GENDER EQUALITY AND EMPOWER ALL WOMEN AND GIRLS
Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.
International commitments to advance gender equality have brought about improvements in some areas, but the promise of a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality, and where all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed, remains unfulfilled. In fact, that goal is probably even more distant than before, since women and girls are being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The global pandemic could set back progress to end child marriage and female genital mutilation. Together we must work towards the complete elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations.
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. There is now an emerging consensus among Member States that children do not belong in Government security forces in conflict.
Launched in March 2019, the new campaign ACT to Protect Children Affected by Conflict is a call for action. It aims at raising awareness and mobilise efforts to end and prevent the six grave violations committed against children in conflict; Bringing the voices of children affected by armed conflict to the UN highest fora; Increasing communication about the Children and Armed Conflict mandate and its results; Strengthening alliances to protect children affected by armed conflict; Mainstreaming the children and armed conflict agenda to ensure integration and action throughout the UN system and beyond.
With the support of the international community, the goal of ending grave violations against 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 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.