November 20 is observed as Universal Children’s Day every year. The day is dedicated to children to promote international togetherness, create awareness about their rights and improve their welfare.
But 2019 is very important that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child — a landmark accord in which governments explicitly recognised that children have the same human rights as adults.
While governments and non-government organisations discuss about various means to safeguard the rights of children worldwide, reports from war-torn countries continue to pour in lamenting about millions of
children falling fatally sick due to lack of food, health services and other basic facilities.
In poor countries like Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan, children are falling victims to malnutrition and related diseases.
According to Unicef, more than 29 million babies were born into conflict-affected areas in 2018. More than 1 in 5 babies globally spent their earliest moments in communities affected by the chaos of conflict, often in deeply unsafe, and highly stressful environments.
Photos and news reports cannot show the mental and psychological injuries experienced by children in war zones.
Giving an eye witness account to me, Gireesh Chouhan, who worked for an international aid agency in some of the war-ravaged countries including Yemen, said that both young and old alike suffer from many mental disorders including anxiety and depression.
“Apart from hunger and diseases, many families are in the grip of domestic violence resulting from lack of income mainly due to joblessness caused by their inability to work,” said Gireesh, an ardent social worker with whom I worked for World Vision in the interior region of Madhya Pradesh, a central Indian state in the 80s. In many homes, fathers are losing their status as the main breadwinners due to their inability to provide for their children. Malnourishment is rising. Ordinary people simply cannot afford to buy food any more.
Mothers are not producing enough milk to feed their infants. When it comes to substituting with formula, there is no money. In all cases, the ultimate victims are children, he said
“Desperation can be seen on the faces of all these feeble mothers when their malnourished children cry for food. The situation is pathetic,” he recounted.
While thousands of children die each year as a direct result of armed violence, millions more die from the indirect consequences of wars — mainly due to disruption in food supplies, non-availability of health services, water systems and sanitation.
Children have, of course, always been caught up in warfare. They usually have little choice but to experience the same horrors as their parents. Children are the hardest hit and the most exposed as food supplies run short their growing bodies are deprived of steady supplies of essential nutrients. Leave alone food, even water supplies get contaminated, it is children who have had the least resistance to the dangers of disease.
When young children experience prolonged or repeated adverse and traumatic events, the stress management system of the brain is activated without relief. Studies reveal that over time, stress chemicals break down existing neural connections and inhibit new ones from forming, leading to lasting consequences for children’s learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health.
“Fear is writ large on the faces of most children. Parents lament that their kids don’t sleep. Sounds of explosions, breath-stopping smoke coupled with the shrieking of sirens increase to their trauma,” Gireesh said.
It is clear that there has not been any letup in the sufferings of children even after the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of the Child were adopted in 1989.
This is a fact highlighted by Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of Unicef that the changes children face today “were unimaginable to children in 1989”.
Every parent should be able to cherish their baby’s first moments, but for the millions of families living through conflict, the reality is far bleaker, she said in September.
“Childhood is changing and so must we. Countries must invest in those who carry the future forward and not only listen to children and young people, but work with them to achieve the change they want to see,” she said.
Let us support them, let us take action with them, and 30 years from now let us look back on this time as a time when the world committed, and put concrete programmes in place to keep our promises to children and young people.