The impact of conflict on children in particular is now a constant feature of news from around the world. The children featured may be from many different ethnic, religious or national identities, and the combatants in the conflict differ from place to place, but one thing is always true: whoever is responsible for the violence or the exodus of refugees, it is not the children.
The outlook for children growing up in many parts of the world today is truly bleak. Violence towards under 18-year-olds, exacerbated by conflict and humanitarian disasters, is horrific in its immediate impact, but it is also deeply damaging for the long term too. From human trafficking to child soldiers, from refugees in search of safety to those listening daily to the sound of approaching bombing, the physical and psychological consequences for children are obvious. And many millions are left without an education to help them build a life in the future.
Unicef UK have joined the Keep Schools Safe campaign. They are urging the UK Government to sign up to international guidelines that would protect schools in conflict zones and last night broadcaster Kirsty Young hosted on this issue, her first event as the new President of Unicef UK. With speakers, including the formidable Leila Zerrougui, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, the campaign for safe schools for children caught up in conflict was highlighted. We heard about the use of schools for military bases, the attacks on schools and children, and the challenges of delivering education in refugee camps. As one speaker said: ‘the armies have choices about were they sleep and where they bomb, but the children have only one school and one childhood. They have no second choice.’
These guidelines – already signed by over 50 countries – set a standard, within international law, that would keep schools and classrooms for children and teaching. UK support would help persuade many others to follow. As campaigns to stop the recruitment of child soldiers and to challenge the use of rape as a weapon of war have shown in some places, it is possible to change previously unchallenged military behaviour. It is possible to lead by example, and the UK should now do so.