Children and Armed Conflict and the SDGs – Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Children go to school at Harsham Camp for Displaced Persons in Erbil, Iraq. UNICEF/Wathiq Khuzaie

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

When adopting the new development agenda, Member States pledged to leave no one behind and to “strive to reach the furthest away”. 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 facing challenges on a scale we haven’t seen in decades. Violent conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere disrupt the lives of millions of people.

Too often during conflicts, we think of children as being on the periphery of violence. In reality, they are the most affected by war, and our efforts to protect them are seriously undermined. Right now, in countries like South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and many more, children are being killed, maimed, recruited and used as child soldiers, abducted and victims of sexual violence. Schools and hospitals are under attack and they have no access to vital humanitarian aid.

Children, who make up about half of the world’s conflict-affected population, remain largely invisible victims. They are, without a doubt, among the most vulnerable and have been the most left behind.

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


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


The SDGs affirm the right of every child to quality education. Yet conflict too often means the end of learning for millions of children. Schools are destroyed or damaged, and children forced from their homes rarely find a safe place to continue their studies during their displacement.

With protracted conflicts, the education of entire generations is at risk. This is why education in emergencies must be a priority. If children could continue to learn in times of war, countries would be better equipped to bounce back and build lasting peace. Likewise, we must prioritize the reconstruction of schools once peace is restored. Experience shows that it sometimes takes decades to relocate qualified teachers and the physical infrastructure needed to deliver quality education.

Investing in education is key to fulfilling the promise of the SDGs. We cannot expect children to participate in the development of their country if they do not have the basic skills. Without education, development will be stunted and economic opportunities will remain scarce, fueling grievances and new cycles of instability.

SDG 4 reminds us that we must “promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. This is particularly important for children recruited and used as child soldiers or whose education has been interrupted for so long that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to return to a mainstream school.

The reintegration of former child soldiers is essential for the well-being of children affected by the conflict but also beneficial for the community as a whole and must be a priority. Liberated boys and girls may struggle to find 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 could grow up and contribute to blocking or, worse, reversing of development.

Considerable resources are needed to support the release and reintegration of former child soldiers, with particular attention to the needs of girls. Financial support for reintegration programs should be a key element of development programs in post-conflict situations.


Health services save and sustain lives. Today’s armed conflicts increasingly put hospitals in the crosshairs. 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 staff to flee, depriving communities of their vital expertise when they need it. most needed. The violence perpetrated against health facilities and personnel has a significant effect, leading to a dramatic increase in the death rate of patients, including, of course, children.

Rebuilding health infrastructure and bringing doctors and nurses back to post-conflict communities can take years. As a result, the health of boys and girls is affected, as well as the development of the country.

To respond to 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.


Gender equality is not just a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

International commitments to advance gender equality have brought 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 to their empowerment have been removed, remains unfulfilled. In fact, that goal is likely even further away than before, as women and girls are 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 mutilation.


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

Over the years, tools have been developed and resolutions passed 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 have no place in government security forces in times of conflict.

Launched in March 2019, the new ACT to Protect Children Affected by Conflict campaign is a call to action. It aims to raise awareness and mobilize efforts to end and prevent the six grave violations committed against children in conflict; Make the voice of children affected by armed conflict heard at the highest levels of the United Nations; Increase communication on the mandate of children and armed conflict and its results; Strengthen alliances to protect children affected by armed conflict; Mainstream the children and armed conflict agenda to ensure mainstreaming and action across 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 devote the necessary attention and resources to this problem so as not to miss an opportunity to achieve this development goal.


Grievances ferment if judges do not judge them fairly. Employment opportunities disappear if business is driven 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. This is how fundamental justice and accountability are to our work. They are also vitally important in ensuring the protection of children by ensuring that violations do not recur.

Securing accountability for violations against children is the best way to prevent them from happening again. Accountability takes many forms, but governments have the primary responsibility to protect their civilians and ensure 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 harming children. All crimes must be promptly and effectively investigated and prosecuted.

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, grow up to live and contribute to the potential for meaningful change brought by the new development program.