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The UK can show itself as a ‘force for good’ in the world by being a champion for children affected by conflict

Save the Children say that the Children and Armed Conflict agenda must be "afforded much greater priority" | Credit: Save the Children

Save the Children

7 min read Partner content

The UK has both the power and responsibility to make a difference.

Last month a car bomb exploded outside the Sayed al-Shuhada school in Kabul. Of the 85 people killed, most were teenage girls.

In Myanmar, at least 54 children have been killed by the regime since the February coup. The youngest was just six years old. Hundreds more have been injured or detained.

In today’s conflicts, children are on the frontlines – with devastating consequences for their lives and futures.

1 in every 6 children around the world is affected by armed conflict, and 160 million live in ‘high intensity’ conflict zones. From Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to Myanmar, South Sudan, and the DRC, their rights are increasingly violated with impunity.

The United Nations identifies six grave violations of children’s rights in conflict, and every year the UN Secretary-General publishes a report ‘naming and shaming’ warring parties who have perpetrated them.

Ahead of the publication of this year’s report, we look at the stories of children affected by each of the grave violations; why the report matters, and what role the UK can play in strengthening the protection of children in conflict.

What are the six grave violations against children?

1. Killing and maiming of children

Shogofa* is nine years old and from Fayrab province in Afghanistan. Her house was hit by a rocket during fighting in her hometown and she was forced to flee to a camp in Mazar province with her family.

During the attack she was critically wounded, suffering severe head injuries and losing several of her fingers in the blast. The incident killed three of her brothers. She now lives in a tent with her mother, father, sisters and remaining brothers.

2. Recruitment and use of children by armed forces or armed groups

As a young boy, Peter lived in South Sudan with his aunt and sister. When he was 10 years old fighting broke out in their neighbourhood. Peter fled and, separated from his family, he lived in the bush with other displaced people.

An armed group recruited Peter into their ranks. He was taught to load and shoot a gun and made to cook, wash clothes and carry equipment. “They gave us weapons for shooting,” he says. “They trained you how to load a gun, how to put in the bullet and release the trigger for the gun to shoot.”

After more than two years, Peter managed to escape. Now 14, he lives in a refugee camp in Uganda with another family.

3. Attacks on schools or hospitals

This school, in the suburbs of Idlib was attacked and bombed three times. Luckily the attacks took place just after the children had left school or before they arrived, but still lives were lost.

Save the Children rehabilitated the school twice, but after the third bombing the school was deemed no longer safe and so it was closed. The school was attended by Rami* and Maha* and luckily Save the Children have subsequently found a new location for the school in Northern Syria which they now attend. 

4.  Sexual violence against children 

Lydia was 15 years old when she was assaulted by rebels near her home in the DRC:

“When I came home from school and I couldn’t find my mother, I started searching for her. This is when the group found me and defiled me. Two rebels raped me. After that I told my neighbours that my mother was missing. I left and didn’t carry anything from the house. I was in pain and felt sorrow. I feel so bad, remembering those things.”

Lydia fled to Uganda. She later found out that, following the rape, she was pregnant. She is now living in a refugee camp with her baby son, Bintu.

5. Abduction of children

Mangeni* (13) and her family had a good life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, until the conflict started. One day, armed men arrived at their home.

They tied Mangeni up, beat her mother and took her father into the forest where they shot him dead. After the killing, they blindfolded her then took her to their camp. She was just eleven years old.

Every day, she was made to cook and clean for them. There were other children in the camp too, but they were all killed during the time she was there. One night, when all the men were sleeping, she was finally able to escape. Around a year after she was originally captured, she arrived back home.

6. Denial of humanitarian access to children

Safwan* is a two-year-old boy living in in Hudaydah governorate.  He represents millions of children in Yemen who are at high risk of malnutrition. 

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in incidents of humanitarian access being denied to children in Yemen. These violations include restrictions on movement both into and within the country, interference with humanitarian assistance, and violence against humanitarian personnel, assets and facilities.

What’s the Children and Armed Conflict report?

At a time when the norms and standards that put children off-limits in war are themselves under sustained attack, the Children and Armed Conflict agenda at the UN offers an important tool for holding perpetrators to account and protecting children.

Every year, as part of his annual report on children affected by armed conflict, the UN Secretary-General publishes a list of warring parties that have committed grave violations against children. This has become known as the ‘list of shame’.

By identifying and exposing perpetrators, it provides a key first step towards accountability. It incentivises listed parties to change their behaviour by ‘naming and shaming’ them in the eyes of the world.

Now more than ever, children affected by conflict need a champion

And it can secure real, tangible change – to be removed from the list, warring parties must agree and implement action plans to protect children. In Nigeria, since the Government’s Civilian Joint Task Force signed an action plan to end its recruitment and use of children in 2017, no new cases of child recruitment or use by the group have been verified, and more than 2,200 children have been separated from its ranks.

However, in recent years, the listing process has become increasingly politicised. Some powerful nations have used their influence to avoid being listed, despite clear evidence of grave violations. For example, last year the Secretary-General removed Saudi Arabia from the list even though the UN’s own findings concluded that the Saudi-led coalition had killed and maimed 222 children in Yemen in 2019.

This undermines the credibility of the report and, therefore, efforts to protect children in armed conflict.

What’s the role of the UK?

The UK has a seat at the most powerful tables in the world, including the UN Security Council. This means it has both the power, and the responsibility, to make a difference for children affected by conflict.

The UK can help ensure the ‘list of shame’ is fit for purpose by taking a strong stand in support of the Secretary-General’s independence and an evidence-based approach. As one of the largest funders of the Office of the UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, it’s particularly important for the UK to be a strong voice on this – and of course, to maintain that funding commitment.

The UK also holds the presidency of the G7, which means it can bring the world’s most powerful democracies together to call out grave violations against children and agree concrete steps to hold perpetrators to account.

And as it develops the new conflict centre and approach announced in its Integrated Review of foreign policy, the UK Government can – and must - ensure the Children and Armed Conflict agenda is afforded much greater priority.

Now more than ever, children affected by conflict need a champion. There’s no better way for the UK Government to live up to its commitment to be a ‘force for good’ in the world than to be that champion.

*names have been changed 

Photo credits

1. Jim Huylebroek/Save the Children

2. Louis Leeson / Save The Children 

3. Ahmad Baroudi/Save the Children 

4. Esther Ruth Mbabazi 

5. Fredrik Lerneryd/Save The Children

6. Ali Ashwal / Save the Children 

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