Children affected by conflict

Frido Pflüger SJ
Former JRS Eastern Africa Regional Director
Friday, November 20, 2009

Every year on 20 November, the international community observes Universal Children’s Day to draw attention to the situation of children around the world and call for their rights to be respected.

This year Universal Children’s Day coincides with the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the UN General Assembly. For the first time, the Convention acknowledged that children are individual rights-holders which was a major step ahead. To date it is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty. But even 20 years after the adoption of the Convention, the rights of children are still not respected and continue to be trampled on.

JRS Eastern Africa has seized both the anniversary and Universal Children’s Day as an opportunity to take a closer look at the situation of children in this region. All the children JRS works with in eastern Africa are affected by conflict in one way or another. In northern Uganda thousands of children have been abducted and recruited as child soldiers or sex slaves by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Hundreds of thousands have been forced into overcrowded, unhygienic internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, where all the cultural and moral values of their communities are lost. In Southern Sudan, children who return after years of war barely find access to education because of a lack of infrastructure and trained personnel. Many have been separated from their families and have had to assume adult roles in order to survive. Girls easily become victims of sexual abuse or are forced to marry at an early age. Our experience in Kakuma, one of Kenya’s two refugee camps, has shown that children with disabilities are rejected by their communities and deprived of equal opportunities. Refugee children living in urban centres such as Addis Ababa, Kampala or Nairobi receive no assistance while their parents struggle to make a living.

Sadly, whenever a conflict breaks out, it is always the most innocent who bear the brunt. Children, in particular, need special assistance and care for their wounds on body and soul to heal; a process that requires due time and is essential for a new beginning. If their wounds are not healed, this will also adversely affect the future of their communities.

Often, their struggle seems unbearable. But their resilience and strength while trying to become masters of their future is a sign of hope. I have met many children who, emerging from a conflict, seemed stronger and more determined to go on with life. Their faith in a God of life helps many to maintain their dignity and not lose hope.

I hope the accounts from JRS workers across the region and from children accompanied by JRS in eastern Africa will endow you with a better understanding of their situation and encourage you to become yourself an advocate for their rights.