Impact of war on children

In 1996, Graca Machel, an advocate for human rights, wrote an extensive report for United Nations on the effects of armed conflicts on children, urging for better recognition of violation of human rights of children and young people and establishment of the protective measures in conflict areas. Machel warned of the changing dynamics of war in 20th century (especially in its second half) that have been increasingly affecting civilians, that were no more considered as “collateral damage” but have become an explicit and direct targets of weaponry. Wars are led more commonly within the country’s borders instead of between countries. Warfare has changed also in terms that it includes the activities of both the governmental army and non-state paramilitary forces and militias, of different origin and ideological orientation, which are perpetrating atrocities and acts of terror on civilians, sometimes on everyday basis. Many of these conflicts are protracted (such as those in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Uganda, India), causing whole generations to grow up in war zones or refugee camps. Armed conflicts are very often situated in impoverished regions or states that already have insufficient infrastructure, health or educational services. Political and military elites commonly profit from warfare, competing for power and resources, and enhance the vicious circle of poverty and structural violence in local populations. The number of refugees fleeing from terrors in their home country (or being forcefully displaced in their own country) has been increasing recently, rather reluctantly becoming an important agenda in developed countries politics. Sexual exploitation and gender-based violence have become part of the reality in conflict zones, while the landmines and unexploded ordnance pose problems decades after the fire has ceased(De Jong 2002, Dupuy and Peters 2010, Machel 1996, Machel 2001).

According to United Nations Report on the impact of armed conflict on children, in ongoing conflicts around the globe, civilians have been increasingly and severely affected by war. Among them, half are children and adolescents younger than 18 years of age (Machel 2001). In 1996, UNICEF stated that in the period from 1985-1996, 2 million children had been killed in war, 4-5 million had been left disabled or severely wounded, 12 million children were displaced or made homeless and 1 million lost their parents or were separated from them (Machel 1996).

In the context of new warfare, children are the most vulnerable group. Losing their protective and secure environment, they are exposed to and affected by all the above-mentioned aspects of armed conflict. Displacement, loss of home and family members, and separation from parents, on whom they depend for their survival needs, leaves long-term consequences on their development and growth, lasting well into adulthood.

Since children and adolescents are still in development, both physical and psychological, their health is seriously endangered in war. Some of them are killed or tortured brutally, while others suffer from serious injuries, sometimes leaving them disabled. It is not rare that children are recruited in military as the child soldiers, where they are at greater risk of being injured or to injuring others. Insufficient diet, especially if in an already impoverished population, leads to malnutrition and weakens the immune system. Poor living conditions, with inadequate sanitation, lead to spread of the infectious diseases. Lack of the medication, medical staff and proper health care services cause the mortality rate and the morbidity toll to increase during wartime. Many children lose their parents, siblings, friends and extended family members. Those who are orphaned are frequently left to live in the streets, where they are exposed to slavery, drugs and alcohol. During war, parents are usually preoccupied with pure survival, paying less attention to their own children, who are left to make sense of adverse events by themselves.

Destruction, poverty and violence create a vicious circle. Since infrastructure is usually destroyed, schooling is impeded and is often halted. The closure of schools not only leaves life-long scars on education and employment, but also deprives children of one of the most important protective factors.

De Jong, J et al
2002 Trauma, War and Violence: Public mental health in socio-economic context. New York, Boston, Dordrecht, London, Moscow: Kluwer Academic Press.

Dupuy, KE and Krijn Peters
2010 War and children: a reference handbook. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: Praeger Security International, ABC Clio

Machel, G
1996 The impact of armed conflict on children. UNICEF. Assessed on 01.09.2015

2001 The impact of war on children: a review of progress since the 1996. United Nations Report on the impact of armed conflict on children. London: Hurst.