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The Attack on Children
In 1996, 30 major armed conflicts raged in different locations around the world.They took place within states, between factions split along ethnic, religious and cultural lines. In the past decade, an estimated 2 million children were killed in armed conflict and three times as many seriously injured or permanently disabled. There is no way to measure the impact on a child who sees her family killed or to quantify the emotional and psychological toll on children who live for years in fear of bombings, mutilation or death. In recent decades the proportion of war victims who are civilians has leapt dramatically from 10 percent to more than 90 percent. Human rights violations against children occur in unprecedented numbers. Many of today's conflicts last the length of a childhood, so that from birth to early adulthood, children experience multiple and accumulative assaults. Disrupting the social networks and primary relationships that support a child's physical, emotional, moral, cognitive and social development in this way has profound physical and psychological implications.

Those facts about our world are brought chillingly home in a recent report to the United Nations. It was based on two years of study, including visits to wartorn countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America, by a team headed by Graça Machel, the widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique. Machel was the country's minister of education for 10 years. She is a lawyer, and her report marshals the facts like a compelling legal opinion.

Machel wrote: "The statistics are shocking enough, but they suggest something worse. More and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped and maimed; a space in which children are exploited as soldiers. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink"

In August 1996, the report, titled "The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children," was submitted to the UN General Assembly by the secretary-general. The General Assembly gave thorough consideration to this study and to the mechanism required for following up the implementation of the recommendations.

Promoting Psychosocial Well-Being
The report points out that "armed conflict affects all aspects of child development - physical, mental and emotional - and to be effective, assistance must take account of each. Historically, those concerned with the situation of children during armed conflict have focused primarily on their physical vulnerability. The loss, grief and fear a child has experienced must also be taken into account. Armed conflict destroys homes, splinters communities and breaks down trust among people, undermining the very foundations of children's lives

"All phases of emergency and reconstruction assistance programmes should take psychosocial considerations into account. They should give priority to preventing further traumatic experiences, such as preventing family separation, undertaking practical measures to prevent gender-based violence and avoiding the isolation and stigmatization that can result from institutionalization

"Psychosocial programmes should incorporate knowledge and respect for local culture and traditions and ensure ongoing consultation and participation with local authorities and communities. The most effective and sustainable approach is to mobilize the existing social care system. This may, for example, involve mobilizing a refugee community to support suitable foster families for unaccompanied children. Through training and raising the awareness of central caregivers, including parents, teachers and community and health workers, a diversity of programmes can enhance the community's ability to provide care for its children. Experience has shown that with supportive caregivers and secure communities, most children will achieve a sense of healing.

"Integrating modern knowledge of child development and child rights with traditional concepts and practices may take time, but will result in more effective and sustainable ways to meet children's needs. A number of principles and activities have been identified to promote healing by fostering a sense of purpose, self-esteem and identity. These include establishing a sense of normalcy through daily routines such as going to school, preparing food, washing clothes and working in the fields. Children also need the intellectual and emotional stimulation that is provided by structured group activities. The most important factor contributing to a child's resilience is the opportunity for expression, attachment and trust that comes from a stable, caring and nurturing relationship with adults.

"Families and communities can better promote the psychosocial well-being of their children when they themselves feel relatively secure and confident about the future. Recognizing that families and communities are often fragmented and weakened by armed conflict, programmes should focus on supporting survivors in their efforts to heal and rebuild their social networks."

The report pays special attention to refugee and internally displaced children, children in camps, the impact of land mines on children, the use of children as soldiers, the problem of social reintegration, gender-based violence, child victims of prostitution and sexual exploitation.

To keep the issues of children and armed conflict high on the international human rights agenda and to ensure follow-up, the secretary-general is called upon to appoint a special representative, who will foster international cooperation between governments, UN bodies, specialized agencies and other competent bodies, including nongovernmental organizations like ISTSS.

ISTSS actively participated in the annual sessions of the General Assembly, ECOSOC and UNICEF and has kept the issue of traumatic stress on their agendas. The Society has also been a consultant in the establishment of UNICEF's Trauma Recovery Programme, including the National Trauma Centers in Rwanda, Zaire and other countries. During the coming years, ISTSS representatives at the United Nations will maintain their vigilance.