Saving children in crisis

Raza Hussain Qazi
Monday, Dec 04, 2023

Whether it’s human-induced climate change, mysterious pandemics, or man-made disasters like Israel’s ongoing genocide of Gazans, children have always been the primary victims of the devastations.

It is a cruel irony that they bear the highest cost, being the most vulnerable and at a greater risk of harm during crises and emergencies. The consequences of such calamities have been devastating for millions of children. Recent events such as the catastrophic floods of 2022, the war in Ukraine, and the ongoing war crimes in Palestine prompt us to consider what the world needs to do to protect and save children during the times of crisis, and how to ensure the rights of those who have been displaced or become migrants as a result of violence.

Shortly after the world celebrated ‘World Children’s Day’ on November 20, the heart-wrenching news of the brutal killings of children in Gaza witnessed a momentary pause after over a month and half of unrelenting massacre. The number of children killed reached a staggering 6,150, with thousands more maimed and an alarming number of children missing.

Among the 2.3 million Gazans, over a million children have been forced to become refugees, lacking access to homes, medical care, and education. They are enduring traumatic conditions with no end in sight. The impact of this war and violence on the mental health and well-being of these children is immeasurable, with hundreds of thousands forced to flee for their lives. The number of affected children increases when the number of those subjected to arbitrary detention, long incarcerations, enforced disappearance, and torture by the apartheid regime is considered over the past decades.

According to Unicef spokesperson James Elder, “Gaza has become a graveyard for thousands of children. And yet, the threats to children go beyond bombs and mortars.” He also addressed the issues of water and trauma stating that “the more than one million children of Gaza also face a water crisis Gaza’s water production capacity is only 5.0 per cent of its usual daily output child deaths, particularly among infants, due to dehydration, are a growing threat.”

During a somewhat similar conflict, the children of Ukraine also suffered greatly, with over 1,500 killed and injured during Russia’s full-scale invasion. More than two million refugee children fled the war in Ukraine in search of safety across the borders, and an additional 2.5 million children were displaced within the country. Like the children in Gaza, 60 per cent of children in Ukraine had been forced from their homes. The exact number or percentages of children affected by both conflicts is still unknown to the world.

Drawing a parallel to this human-made crisis, the impact of climate change is equally significant in its effect on the lives of children. The recent catastrophic floods in Pakistan in 2022 serve as a stark reminder of this. These floods resulted in the tragic loss of at least 528 children’s lives and affected over 16 million children, with 3.4 million in urgent need of life-saving assistance. Many of the imperiled children continue to suffer in dire conditions, lacking access to clean water, adequate food, and essential health and education services due to the destruction and damage of vital infrastructure that has yet to be restored.

The crisis has not only brought about physical and social consequences, but also long-lasting psycho-social trauma and a significant decline in mental wellbeing for the affected children. Climate change is widely recognized as the most pressing threat to the world’s children, and its multifaceted impacts have had devastating effects on their physical and mental health, nutrition, education, and overall well-being.

It is often said that ‘Every crisis is a child rights crisis’. The current global crisis necessitates a thorough examination of the impact of climate change on children’s lives, especially in regions vulnerable to climate-related disasters and conflict. It is crucial to foster partnerships in research and development, identify risks and opportunities, and encourage stakeholders to promote peace and collaboration, as well as to implement child-focused holistic development programmes. World leaders must prioritize the implementation of a child well-being agenda, and social scientists should share knowledge and best practices with governments, businesses, and civil society groups to reform global child rights architecture, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Similarly, the UN Security Council has identified the ‘Six Grave Violations’ against children during armed conflict due to their particularly egregious nature and severe impact on a child’s wellbeing. The first violation is regarding killing or maiming, and the fifth and sixth violations are attacks against schools or hospitals and denial of humanitarian access. Each of the violations may constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war, as well as a contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international and regional human rights treaties. In accordance with UNSC Resolutions 1612 (2005) and 1882 (2009), the UN system is responsible for monitoring and reporting to the Security Council on compliance of parties to conflict – a role which has never been fully realized in practice.

In order to fully protect the world’s children, it is essential that the entire development process includes the voices of children and the youth. Clear plans must be put in place to address children’s vulnerabilities and prioritize the rights of future generations.

Governments, as Parties to the Paris Agreement (2015), must ensure that their communications, such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), are inclusive and incorporate rights-based approaches to ensure climate and disaster resilience in critical social services for children. Additionally, governments must support children and young people as key agents of change in crisis situations and integrate their active participation into national policy and planning discussions.

By the same token, multilateral and bilateral financial institutions should prioritize child-focused climate finance investments, such as schools, health centers, water and sanitation infrastructure, and social protection schemes to protect children who are more prone to the risks of climate change and multiple disasters.

The key priority agendas today should include freedom from violence, equal opportunities and social inclusion, access to and safe use of technologies, child-friendly justice for all children, and giving a voice to every child.

Millions of children are directly impacted by violence, discrimination, conflicts, poverty resulting from climate change, and abuse. It is the responsibility of both governments and citizens to ensure that the fundamental rights of all children are fully and equally fulfilled, so they can build a world that aligns with their dreams and aspirations. Impunity for crimes against children in war must be stopped, as they are already at risk due to the climate crisis.

The writer is a climate governance expert whoworks for global development organizations in the fields of research, advisory, policy analysis, and legislativereforms. He tweets/posts @razashafqat