Last week I led a debate in the House of Commons on protecting children in conflict; as a mother, this is an issue that I feel very passionately about. Around the world over a billion children live in conflict-affected countries but their interests are often neglected.
This debate was an opportunity to speak out for the voiceless.
While in the past child injuries and deaths were seen as the collateral damage of war, children are increasingly being targeted – as the recent abductions of Nigerian schoolchildren highlight. With the UN reporting unprecedented levels of brutality against children in the Central African Republic, including mutilation and beheading, it is clear that we need renewed focus on protecting children in conflict.
In March, I visited the Middle East with Parliament’s International Development Committee to see how UK aid is helping Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. Since the conflict began, over 2.3 million people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. While we should be proud the UK has pledged £600 million to help these refugees, we should not underestimate the challenge. Refugee camps – like Camp Zaatari that we visited – may make the delivery of services easier but new places present new risks, with reports of domestic and sexual violence and early and forced marriage.
Around 28.5m children are out of school in conflict areas, yet humanitarian aid does not prioritise education and child protection in the same way as water, shelter and food. Only two per cent of UN appeal funds go to education and only 40 per cent of requests for funding for education are met. Without the proper support, children traumatised by conflict cannot be expected to learn. Those who manage to register for school face multiple barriers – from social isolation to differences in language and curriculum.
But if education is properly funded, schools can be safe spaces. It is important that humanitarian missions mainstream child protection and promote children’s rights, as we do here in the UK.
With the majority of conflicts re-emerging within ten years of ceasefire, children are key to preventing future violence. The beliefs and practices that foster violence easily become deeply embedded; around the world there are already 250,000 children active in armed groups. We need to support the rehabilitation of child soldiers and prevent future recruitment.
We owe a huge debt to the aid workers who work in these dangerous environments. When we see the worst of humanity, they show us the best.
Fiona O’Donnell is Labour MP for East Lothian and member of the International Development Committee