Ara Darzi is a Member of the UK House of Lords, Chair of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee and Co-Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London.
We continue to mourn in silence as images of parents mourning the loss of their children in armed conflict flash across our screens.
There are two dark images running through my mind. In Mariupol, 2-year-old Artem, wounded by shrapnel in the stomach, waits in an intensive care unit for his family to see him. And in Yemen, 8-year-old Omar was playing in the town of Taiz when an artillery shell exploded nearby, seriously injuring him and killing his older brother Mahmoud.
Continued aid cuts, restrictions on humanitarian access, economic collapse and heavy fighting in populated areas present serious threats to the safety and well-being of children. And although humanitarian organizations and support groups are working tirelessly to help alleviate the severe physical and emotional trauma that armed conflict inflicts on children, much more needs to be done.
The number of major conflicts in the world has tripled since 2010and at least a fifth of young people today live in conflict zones.
In 2019, one in four civilian casualties in Yemen were children – a jump of one in five in 2018. Meanwhile, in Syria, a record 90% of children are in need of humanitarian aid and half a million children under the age of five are chronically malnourished.
Currently, more than 5.5 million children in Ukraine are at serious risk of exploitation, trafficking and abuse, in addition to needing basic services such as health, education and sanitation. And according to UNICEF, Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused one of the fastest displacements of children since World War II, leaving more than one million refugee children.
Children who suffer in armed conflict are not a new or unknown tragedy; they have always paid a high price in humanitarian crises.
In the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of Armenian children were subjected to grueling marches through mountainous terrain without food or water during the Armenian Genocide. Those who couldn’t keep up were left for dead, and those who survived endured exploitation, forced labor, and physical or sexual abuse.
During World War I, children frequently fought in Allied and Axis forces, while others were abducted and beaten into submission or forced to evacuate. And in London alone7,736 children were killed and 7,622 seriously injured during the Blitz.
From Yemen to Syria, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Colombia, from Myanmar to Afghanistan, after decades of relative wealth and prosperity, the geopolitical situation has deteriorated all over the world.
Children are being abducted by armed groups, prevented from going to school or hospitals and deprived of access to health, education and humanitarian aid – an appalling violation of international humanitarian law.
Today more than ever, humanitarian, philanthropic and humanitarian organizations must redouble their efforts to protect children, from infancy through adolescence.
Leaders from a wide range of disciplines, political ideologies and religious affiliations should contribute financially to ensure that aid reaches all children in need, regardless of where they live, their ethnicity or their political affiliation. We need governments to scale up lifesaving and protection services for the most vulnerable people, and this includes improving health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene service delivery systems. , as well as educational programs.
Administrative processes, such as objective measurement and reporting, are of paramount importance and also need to be streamlined and up to date.
In this sense, we should also work closely with local non-governmental organizations that respond to or help prevent abuses in humanitarian crises. This includes lobbying for the reform of child welfare laws that protect those without access to parental care. And we must also advocate for an international legal framework that punishes violations against children in situations of armed conflict, which continues to be one of the most pressing challenges of our time.
Finally, we must include children with disabilities in our humanitarian plans.
Worldwide, one in 10 children has a disability, and the proportion is even higher in areas of armed conflict or disaster. Children with disabilities remain one of the most marginalized groups in conflict zones, with even more limited access to education, medical care and mental health services, and they face an increased risk of violence, of discrimination and abuse.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2020, households in Syria with more than one member with a disability were 9% less likely to meet their basic needs than other households. And although the ability of all Syrians to meet their basic needs has comparatively declined by 2022, children with disabilities were among those disproportionately affected by deepening poverty.
Today, millions of children are born in armed conflict, and their quality of life continues to deteriorate exponentially. Our children are our future, and from where I stand, the future looks bleak.
We all have a duty to change its course.