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Kamala Sarup: Peace Is Every Child's Right

Stop Arming Children - Peace Is Every Child's Right

By Kamala Sarup

This week, Nepal's Maoist rebels announced plans to raise a militia of 50,000 children. On February 22, the leader of the Maoists student wing, Kamal Shahi, said the decision to raise child militia was taken by the rebel leadership on January 10-11. In the past couple of weeks, the Maoists have resorted to mass abductions, particularly of young students of grades six-ten from schools in western Nepal. In this period, around 950 children were abducted. Though most abducted students are allowed to return after a couple of weeks.

12-year-old Samjhana is one of the many children who have been wounded in the Maoists war in Nepal. She was caught in the cross fire between the militia and has lost both her arms. Samjhana was hit when her house was bombed and she went out to search for her mother who was missing. Samjhana is an internal refugee. She said "I was so afraid of dying. I would like to live normal, in peace. Please stop the fighting". Almost every family in Nepal has been affected by the conflict.

Those children who survive living in eastern and western part of Nepal have often seen members of their families killed and have believed that they too would die. In the chaos of conflict and the panic of fight, many children become separated from their families. Not only are large numbers of children killed and injured, but countless others grow up deprived of their material and emotional needs. Children are also being used as human shields.

The death of Samsher Khatiwada, a four-year-old child in Jhapa's Dhulabari in December this year is a chilling reminder. Khatiwada died while trying to grab an unexploded bomb, mistaking it to be a toy. Naturally curious, children are likely to pick up strange objects, such as the infamous toy-like 'butterfly' mines that Maoists spread by the thousands in Nepal. Land mines pose particular dangers for children.

The majority of children in Nepal have grown up against a permanent conflict background. Many of those who are six or seven-years old have grown up with shootings, explosions, deaths. This is their childhood. Children who manage to survive explosions are likely to be more seriously injured than adults, and often permanently disabled. Some children become Maoists or soldiers simply to survive.

As a result of armed conflict, in the last six months of ceasefire, at least 11 children have been killed, two have been taken into custody and five have been injured. The state of emergency coincided with the bloodiest year in the insurgency: between November 2001 and October last year. Three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. Hundreds of children have been forced to witness or even take part in horrifying acts of violence. Yet it is clear that increasingly, children are targets, not incidental casualties, of armed conflict. While the government has not made any efforts to take care of the special needs of children caught in the conflict.

The vast numbers of children affected and traumatized by armed conflict cast a long shadow over future generations. The situation has worsened in recent years because conflicts have grown more prominent and children suffer more in these. Not only do they suffer from bombs and other violence against civilians, they are all too often drawn into direct participation in these wars. The war-affected children of the eastern Nepal have no opportunity for education, and eat one meal a day, if they are lucky. Many are homeless, forced to flee because of acute poverty.

It is clear that mobilizing children in combat or visiting upon them violence and illness and exploitation holds terrible consequences for their development. The number of children who have been killed, disabled or wounded or have otherwise suffered from grievous harm remains unknown. Girls living on the streets due to war or poverty were "extremely vulnerable" to sexual predation once they reached puberty.

Children are affected by warfare in many ways, but one of the most alarming trends is their participation as guerillas. Thousands of children die each year as a direct result of armed violence from knives, bullets, bombs and land mines. Many of these are forcibly recruited, seized from schools. Others are driven to join armed groups by fear or poverty.

Thousands more have been died from the indirect consequences of warfare as a result of the disruption in food supplies, for example, and the destruction of health services, water systems and sanitation. In Nepal where children are already vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, the onset of armed conflict has increase death rates. Continuing war in Nepal brings more casualties with each day. Political unrest and insurgency have forced several children into hazardous work in Nepal. Many have also been pushed to work as labor in Indian homes and factories.

Our attention also to the failure of systems of traditional values that, have always prevailed in the defense of the children. Every day, we see a rapid increase in the number of children killed, injured, violated, exploited, uprooted and without support, in great part due to the effects of armed violence. Children are facing horrible experiences when they take part in wars. They take heavy risks, are often tortured or raped and lose their most fundamental rights to a life in safety. Except for the risk of being killed or wounded, many are suffering from damages in back and shoulders after carrying heavy weapons. The children often are exploited sexually with the risk for diseases like HIV.

Ultimately, displaced children and their families need to return home. The safety and well being of displaced child-headed families relies significantly on their access to land, property, housing and essential services. Children also need special protection and care. All emergency assistance should specifically address the health needs of children. Thirdly, trafficking in small arms and light weapons, which often provokes and always sustains conflicts, must be brought under control because modern small arms are indeed small and light, they are easily handled by children. There can no longer be any excuses, no acceptable argument for arming children. It is immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them.

Nothing is perhaps more heartrending and disturbing than hearing reports of children being killed not as innocent victims but as combatants. The recruitment and use in hostilities of children under the age of 15 by any armed force or armed group, as a war crime. Crime against children is unacceptable. We Nepali are urging armed groups to end the recruitment of children under 18. The deployment of child is a despicable and damaging practice that must end. Children want the wars to end and the fighting to stop. The idea that children should not fight wars is universal.

There's also a need for psychologists to advocate for policies that support children affected by armed conflict. Although there is national consensus against the morality of sending children into battle, this terrible practice is now a regular facet of contemporary warfare. Civil society should condemn the involvement of children in armed conflict, particularly their mobilization by armed groups. Government and the civil society have to act to stop or minimize the suffering of children in armed conflict. Will government be able to prevent the outbreak of fighting, by addressing the socio-economic roots of conflict?

(This article was published in Telegraph)


(Kamala Sarup is editor of )

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