Stop the war on children
FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2019 - 12:00am

(Veronica Pedrosa is in Cox’s Bazar to work on Save The Children’s Rohingya Response Team, 21 February 2019)

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Laughing and chatting in brightly coloured clothes, girls about the age of my own 16 year old daughter surrounded me. Save the Children colleague Tania tried to keep up with what they were saying so she could translate to me. “They want to show you all the things they’ve made,” she told me. First was a big red cloth embroidered with threads of many colours spelling out the words “Welcome to GFS.” We were at a “Girl Friendly Space,” special places where adolescent girls can come and be with friends, chat, play, and are shown how they can protect themselves from the dangers of violence and abduction. The girls are refugees from Rakhine State, Myanmar, a handful of the more than 730,000 Rohingya people who watched defenceless, as their neighbours, friends and families were raped, maimed and killed; even their homes were burnt to the ground in late 2017. They fled, terrified and left everything behind. 18 months later, they still don’t know what the future holds for them, dependent on humanitarian aid for shelter, food, health care, stateless, with very limited access to education and opportunities to support themselves.

One refugee girl with a bright smile and shining eyes, approached me to show me a small toy boat, formed out of shapeless clay into a work of collective imagination. I asked why they had made it. “To take us back home,” she said.     

The Girl Friendly Space is one of 10 built by Save the Children that serve 600 girls. But that’s less than 1% of the 63,000 girls aged between 12 and 17 living among more than 900,000 refugees. Aid agencies are asking for $920 million to continue to provide protection, food, shelter, education, and health and nutrition services. Compare that to the $228 billion that China spent on its military in 2017 (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).

In a report published by Save the Children on 15 February, we are asking everyone to help “Stop The War On Children.” What happened in Myanmar to cause this catastrophic refugee crisis is a vivid example of one dimension of the war on children. The findings of the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission report highlights shocking gross human rights violations and abuses, and concludes that the widespread and systematic attacks on the civilian population amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, and possibly genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya.

Reports of widespread targeting of civilians and children need to be properly investigated, and perpetrators held accountable, such investigations should be resourced with experts who have specific experience to interview children

Save the Children supports the Fact-Finding Mission’s recommendation that the situation in Myanmar be referred to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council without delay.

Speaking to Rohingya refugees here reveals how children were deliberately targeted. Of the 14 people killed in just one village, survivors told me eight were children, shot by snipers as they crossed the only bridge from school to get home. The youngest in that massacre was just 12.

Everyone here is frantic with fear that they will have to return. At protests against repatriation Rohingya refugee children’s high voices sound at first like they’re playing some sort of high-spirited game, but they saw, heard, and felt everything. Their cries are a call to action that is as serious as it gets. “Ara bishar sai!” they shout, “We want justice!”

I am only beginning to comprehend the immensity of the grief and despair in this place. At one point, as I listened to survivors I knew in my mind that this was just one tent in hundreds of thousands, and I was with people from just one village in thousands, but in my heart I know that every story has had a profound effect to an extent that still isn’t known, because it isn’t even clear if and where these refugees will be able to stay, if they will continue to get the aid they need or the justice that the world is obliged to deliver.

A hundred years ago, Save the Children was founded by child rights activist, Eglantyne Jebb, who went on lay the groundwork for what would become the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Every government in the world, except the USA, has agreed to abide by it “Every war is a war against children,” she said in her fight to protect them.

A century later, we live in an era when the nature of war has changed in brutal new ways: they last longer, are more likely to be fought in cities, attacks on schools and hospitals are up, even the denial of humanitarian aid is being used as a weapon. Children are being disproportionately affected. More than 420 million children are living in conflicts and are facing the daily horror of wars they never created. One in five children in today’s world lives in an area affected by conflict.

In the Philippines’ war-affected Mindanao provinces, young people continue to suffer deaths, injury, abduction and sexual violence. In the last few days there’s been an important step to protect them, a new law has been passed to protect children in situations of armed conflict.  We have a law and we must use it to bring war-makers to account if they break it.

All of us, around the world can help stop the war on children if we work together, and force world leaders to listen and act decisively. We are demanding that children caught up in war are given three things: safety, justice and the practical help they need to stay safe or recover.

Save The Children invites all of us to join in the campaign to stop the war on children. We call to action a new generation: we must bear witness, stand up and give a voice to our children.

Please spend just a few minutes signing our petition and adding your name, and then get others to do the same, we can start to make the change, and our government will have to act.


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