Children – A Blind Spot of Peace and Security
The UN Security Council’s 2015 resolution on youth and conflict was an important milestone for the meaningful participation of youth—defined as people between the ages of 18 and 29—in peacebuilding. Yet the UN, local, and international actors involved in peace and security policy rarely acknowledge children younger than eighteen as stakeholders in their own right. Instead, they are stripped of their agency and often lumped into the broad category of passive civilians (“women and children”), collateral victims, or forcibly abducted child soldiers.[i] The UN Security Council resolutions on children in armed conflict, for example, focus on their need for protection without addressing children’s perspectives and agency.
This blind spot is concerning. Successful peacebuilding requires the involvement of all relevant stakeholders. In 2018, 415 million children worldwide were growing up in conflict zones.[ii] Children are often deliberately targeted, actively shape a conflict’s development, and determine the future of any conflict resolution process. The failure to address children’s specific needs and agency impedes an end to violence and sustainable peace.
To effectively address conflicts, children need to be systematically considered in peacebuilding processes. International and local actors should give children a voice in conflict resolution and provide meaningful ways for them to participate, such as establishing children’s councils in peacebuilding processes, supporting children’s initiatives that tackle child-specific problems, and providing widespread trauma-sensitive education.
Children are targets of military action
Contrary to popular perception, children are not merely collateral damage in armed conflict; many parties to conflict target them deliberately.[iii] The UN verified around 200 instances of grave human rights violations against children in 2010—a number that had risen by 170% by 2018.[iv] In some cases, this violence is used as a tactic of war or strategy. In the ongoing conflict in Syria, for example, children have been tortured to gather intelligence about their families and used as human shields by both government and opposition forces.[v] As a symbol of the future of a particular ethnic, religious, or ideological group, violence against children is also used as the ultimate tool to eradicate these groups.[vi] During the Rwandan genocide, children were targeted and framed as a threat from the very beginning.[vii]
Since children are deliberately targeted in conflict, they also have specific post-conflict grievances. Peacebuilding measures need to acknowledge their suffering and rebuild their trust in the state and society without minimizing children as helpless, passive victims. Failing to address children’s needs can lead to frustration and a feeling of exclusion among the very generation responsible for sustaining long-term peace.
Children are actors in armed conflict
Children also actively shape conflicts. The number of child soldiers has more than doubled since 2012, with almost 30,000 verified instances of recruitment across 17 countries in 2019.[viii] These are not only forced recruitments. A lack of social support and limited access to basic services can motivate children to willingly join armed groups that provide these necessities—not to mention the feeling of empowerment that comes with playing an active role in conflict.[ix] In Lebanon, Hezbollah runs an elaborate social services system that includes schools and hospitals, filling gaps left by the Lebanese state.[x] Just as with adult soldiers, if children perceive a need to keep fighting in order to sustain their lives and future, violence is unlikely to end. To prevent this from happening, conflict resolution measures must also ensure that children’s needs are met.
Non-combatant children can also impact the outcome of a conflict. Many children assume the roles of adults who are injured, killed, or in combat. They raise younger siblings, earn income for their households, and act as substitute farmers. They play a significant role in maintaining community structures in conflict zones, and, ultimately, become determinants of societal stability.[xi] Ignoring children in post-conflict structures excludes a group upholding the social order necessary for sustainably pacifying a conflict.[xii] Children should instead be supported in fulfilling their new functions or in handing them back over to adults.
Conflict has a long-term impact on children and societies
Whether children are targets or perpetrators of violence, an individual’s experience of, and participation in, violent conflict as a child influences their personal characteristics and behavior as an adult. Since brain development predominantly occurs in early childhood, the impact of conflict is very different for children compared to youth over the age of 18. The more children are exposed to, or involved in, brutalities, the less they connect violence with negative emotions, priming them to resort to violence later in life. In cases of severe trauma, an individual’s stress response system may be permanently altered to facilitate violent aggression.[xiii] Children who grow up in conflict risk assuming violence-inducing ideologies are legitimate, as they develop their view of the world by watching and imitating their parents, peers, and other adults.[xiv] The exposure of a generation of children to conflict and violence deeply affects a society’s risk of resorting to violence and violence-inducing ideologies. Addressing children’s trauma and lived experiences post-conflict is, therefore, a crucial factor in breaking the conflict cycle.
Reforming peacebuilding: systematically including children’s needs according to their roles in conflict
The unique roles of children during conflict, and in shaping post-conflict societies, make children key to successful peacebuilding. Despite important work by organizations that focus on children, such as UNICEF and Save the Children, state-level peacebuilding actors in particular need to systematically include children according to their roles in conflict.
Children who were deliberately targeted should be involved in adapting their communities according to their needs and transitional justice projects. National and international actors should implement projects based on children’s prioritisation of needs. A concrete example is Save the Children’s project that empowers Afghan children to feel safe walking around their neighborhoods. The children share their knowledge, experience and perspectives on road safety with police officers and their peers in order to improve police practices and improve their own mobility.[xv]
Where children have fought in conflict, formal peacemaking and peacekeeping processes need to recognize their agency. Children’s councils, for example, should be consulted on peace agreements to ensure that they include issues of specific concern to child soldiers. Humanitarian aid should strive to counteract the socioeconomic incentives that motivate children to join armed groups.
Where children have been the linchpin of social order during conflicts, peacebuilding actors should listen to children’s demands and incorporate them into their programs. They should learn from mistakes made in post-genocide Rwanda and post-conflict Uganda, where orphan heads-of-households struggled to obtain legal ownership of the land they lived on, creating renewed tensions in already fragile communities.[xvi]
Finally, the enduring psychosocial effects of conflict on communities need to be addressed through age- and trauma-sensitive education. UNICEF’s “Learning for Peace” program provides a useful model. One example of this comprehensive peacebuilding education strategy placed children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Pygmy and Bantu communities together in the same classrooms and successfully eased tensions between the two groups.[xvii]
Given a voice, the millions of children who grow up in conflicts will certainly have something to say. To prevent conflicts from dragging on for generations, the UN and all peacebuilding actors need to eradicate their blind spot regarding children.
Image: UN Photo/Marco Dormino
[i] J. Marshall Beier, “Children, Childhoods, and Security Studies: an Introduction,” Critical Studies on Security 3, no. 1 (February 2015): 1-13; Helen Brocklehurst, Who’s Afraid of Children? Children, Conflict and International Relations (London, UK: Routledge, 2017); Charlotte Wagnsson, Maria Hellman, and Arita Holmberg, “The Centrality of Non-Traditional Groups for Security in the Globalized Era: The Case of Children,” International Political Sociology 4, no. 1 (2010): 1-14; Clare Feinstein, Annette Giertsen, and Claire O’Kane, “Children’s participation in armed conflict and post-conflict peace building” in A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation: Perspectives from Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 53-62.
[ii] Deutsche Welle, “415 Million Children Grow up in War Zones, Save the Children Reports,” accessed February 13, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/415-million-children-grow-up-in-war-zones-save-the-children-reports/a-52359439.
[iii] Alison M. S. Watson, “Resilience Is Its Own Resistance: the Place of Children in Post-Conflict Settlement,” Critical Studies on Security 3, no. 1 (2015): 47-61.
[iv] Deutsche Welle, “415 Million Children Grow up in War Zones, Save the Children Reports,” accessed February 13, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/415-million-children-grow-up-in-war-zones-save-the-children-reports/a-52359439; Save the Children, “Stop the War on Children,” accessed July 31, 2020, https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/16784/pdf/ch1413553.pdf
[v] Cecilia Jacob, “‘Children and Armed Conflict’ and the Field of Security Studies,” Critical Studies on Security 3, no. 1 (2015): 14-28.
[vii] Sara Rakita, Rwanda Lasting Wounds: Consequences of Genocide and War for Rwanda’s Children (Human Rights Watch, 2003), accessed September 02, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/rwanda0403/
[viii] Child Soldier International, “Child soldier levels doubled since 2012 and girls’ exploitation rising,” accessed August 02, 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/child-soldier-levels-doubled-2012-and-girls-exploitation-rising.
[ix] Peter W. Singer, Children at War (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006).
[x] Alison M. S. Watson, “Resilience Is Its Own Resistance: the Place of Children in Post-Conflict Settlement,” Critical Studies on Security 3, no. 1 (2015): 47-61. Peter W. Singer, Children at War (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006).
[xi] Katrina Lee-Koo, “Not Suitable for Children: the Politicisation of Conflict-Affected Children in Post-2001 Afghanistan,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 4 (2013): 475-490.
[xii] Cecilia Jacob, “‘Children and Armed Conflict’ and the Field of Security Studies,” Critical Studies on Security 3, no. 1 (2015): 14-28; Charlotte Wagnsson, Maria Hellman, and Arita Holmberg, “The Centrality of Non-Traditional Groups for Security in the Globalized Era: The Case of Children,” International Political Sociology 4, no. 1 (2010): 1-14.
[xiii] Jennifer E. Lansford, “Development of Aggression,” Current Opinion in Psychology 19 (2018): 17-21; L. R. Huesmann, “An Integrative Theoretical Understanding of Aggression: a Brief Exposition,” Current Opinion in Psychology 19 (2018): 119-124; L.R. Huesmann, Eric F. Dubow, Paul Boxer, Simha F. Landau, Shira D. Gvirsman, and Khalil Shikaki, “Children’s exposure to violent political conflict stimulates aggression at peers by increasing emotional distress, aggressive script rehearsal, and normative beliefs favoring aggression”, Development and Psychopathology 29 (2017): 39-50; Michelle Slone and Shiri Mann, “Effects of War, Terrorism and Armed Conflict on Young Children: A Systematic Review,” Child Psychiatry Human Development 47 (2016): 950-965.
[xiv] Peter Gray and David F. Bjorklund, Psychology (New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 2014); L. R. Huesmann, “An Integrative Theoretical Understanding of Aggression: a Brief Exposition,” Current Opinion in Psychology 19 (2018): 119-124.
[xv] Claire O’Kane, Clare Feinstein, and Annette Giertsen, “Children and Young People in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding” in Seen, but not Heard: Placing Children and Youth on the Security Governance Agenda (Zürich: LIT Verlag, 2009), pp. 259-284.
[xvi] Alison M. S. Watson, “Resilience Is Its Own Resistance: the Place of Children in Post-Conflict Settlement,” Critical Studies on Security 3, no. 1 (2015): 47-61; Clare Feinstein, Annette Giertsen, and Claire O’Kane, “Children’s participation in armed conflict and post-conflict peace building” in A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation: Perspectives from Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 53-62.
[xvii] Friedrich W. Affolter and Anna Azaryeva Valente, “Learning for Peace: Lessons Learned from UNICEF’s Peacebuilding, Education, and Advocacy in Conflict-Affected Context Programme,” in Children and Peace (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Open, 2020), pp. 219-239; Nicolas Meulders, “Learning for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” accessed August 10, 2020, https://www.unicef.org/stories/learning-for-peace-democratic-republic-congo.
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