One in six of the world's children live in conflict zones today, facing death, injury and abuse on a daily basis.
Imagine for a moment that your child, your little sister, your nephew, is numbed by the whistle of an airstrike, strangled by fear, and within a split second, trapped, in immense pain, under the rubble of school walls. This is a glimpse of reality for millions of children living in war.
Attacks against schools, killing and maiming of children, sexual violence, abductions and recruitment of child soldiers are just a few of the grave violations from which children in conflict are highly vulnerable.
A new report "The War on Children: Time to End Violations Against Children in Armed Conflict," published by Save the Children, finds 357 million children in 42 countries are affected by conflict, up from "only" 200 million since the 1990s. This is 10 times the population of Canada.
Canada and other developed countries are doing some things right when it comes to helping children to cope with — or, better yet, to avoid — the horrors of the wars that wrack their homelands.
But clearly, there is more to be done.
Those children who survive war, like the thousands of refugees who make it to Canada, can rebuild their shattered lives, at home or elsewhere. But they will carry the scars of brutality forever.
Gaps in the global response to armed hostilities, combined with the changing nature of warfare, mean the harm is getting worse, not better.
The abundance of images of injured or dead children on our screens is not just because social media has changed the way we receive information. Since 2010, the number of United Nations -verified cases of children being killed and maimed has gone up by almost 300 per cent, while incidents of denial of humanitarian access have skyrocketed by more than 1500 per cent.
Many of these children are not just caught in the cross-fire or treated by combatants as expendable collateral damage, but deliberately and systematically targeted. They are bombed in their schools and their homes. They are abducted, tortured and recruited by armed groups to fight and to work as porters, cooks and sex slaves.
Having recently visited a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, it is clear that rape and sexual assault remains prevalent as a weapon of war. The widespread stigma attached to such crimes, and lack of monitoring and reporting mechanisms, means it is an especially under-reported aspect of conflict.
Throughout history, both our government and the Canadian public have played a significant role in helping children in times of crisis and protecting children in war. In 2000, the Canadian government hosted the first ever International Conference on War-Affected Children, and established the UN's Group of Friends on Children and Armed Conflict, a group Canada continues to host today.
In the past year alone, Canada produced the world's first military doctrine on child soldiers, endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration to protect schools from attack during conflict, and launched the Vancouver Principles, a set of political commitments, endorsed by 50 countries, to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in peacekeeping operations.
As the war on children continues to mount, Canada has an opportunity to step up once again, championing the implementation of the international rules-based order that aims to protect children, even in the deadliest of conflicts.
The War on Children report has a series of recommendations under four headings.
- We should prevent children from being put at risk. Let's invest in peace-building. According to the Global Peace Index 2017, every $1 invested in peace-building can lead to a $16 decline in the cost of armed conflict.
- All governments must consistently uphold international laws and standards to protect children in conflict.
- Perpetrators of violations of children's rights in conflict must be systematically held to account.
- Humanitarian programmes to protect children in conflict and to rebuild shattered lives must be properly funded and supported.
Save the Children's founder, Eglantyne Jebb, once said, "All wars, just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child."
This statement is as true now as it was a century ago.
As one of the first countries to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Canada has made a promise to children 'to protect and keep them safe'.
This is a promise that must not be broken. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because in the end, this war on children is a war on our values, and our collective future.
By Bill Chambers, President and CEO, Save the Children Canada
To sign a petition calling on Canada's leaders to protect the world's children from the horrors of armed conflict, please visit: https://act.savethechildren.net/international/waronchildren/petition/.