Protection of children must be priority in war and conflict settings

6 June 2023

Global Humanitarian Director Dr Unni Krishnan implores donors to commit resources to address child protection and support in war and conflict settings.

Face, Head, Person
Children play in a child-friendly space in a refugee camp in Sudan.

Some faces never fade from memory. During a humanitarian mission to the war-torn Mazar E Sherif in Afghanistan several years ago, I met Abdul, 16.

He carried a rusted AK-47 and talked softly. He lost his parents in an explosion. He was too young to figure out why. Someone gave this school dropout a machine gun. The Taliban were no longer in power in Kabul by 2003. The war was over. That meant no ‘job’ for Abdul who used to be a young ‘fighter’. Abdul kept his AK-47, his only possession as he called it. Abdul would fire a few shots into the air to celebrate a wedding in the neighbourhood or a birthday and earn a few Afs, the Afghan currency, and a full meal. 

Later, I often wondered what happened to Abdul and his dreams of becoming a pilot. And the other children of someone else’s war. 

Children are exploited during conflict

Children are made to fire, maim and kill.  They are often forced to walk first on minefields to ensure the safety of adult soldiers. Over 449 million children live in conflict and war zones; some are forced to fight. If all children living in conflict and war zones lived in one country, it would be the third most populous country in the world. 

A publication by the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action says that girls represent between 6 to 50% of children associated with armed forces and armed groups. However, only a fraction of girls are formally identified and released. The longer the conflict, the higher the chances of recruitment of girls.

Girls are often recruited through abduction, forced marriage and false promises. Girls may be forced to marry fighters which puts them at risk of exploitation and abuse. Some families use child marriage as a “protective” measure against abduction.  

Donors must commit to support children

Children who have lost mobility are often more prone to psychosocial challenges. The mother of a teenager I met in Afghanistan, told me that land mines wiped out her child’s both legs, stopping him from playing football, his favourite sport. It was not easy for him to engage in play, attend schools or engage in other activities that make a child a child. She told me that a war is often a funeral in slow motion.

This week, the Norwegian Government, International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the UN and Save The Children are hosting a conference on Protecting Children in Armed Conflict. I hope the conference inspires donors to commit resources to address child protection, their wellbeing and lifesaving needs, as well as invisible needs such as emotional care and support. 

In a world that spent $2240 billion on military expenditure in 2022, this would be small change. But donors can save lives, save futures and build more health centres, schools and playgrounds. 

Protection of children and their wellbeing should be top priorities in war and conflict settings.

Wars and children should never be together.