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The Independent’s Christmas and New Year campaign to abolish child militias has roused the conscience of the nation. That in 2013 we do so little when as many as 250,000 young boys and girls are imprisoned, brutalised and violated by mercenaries and warlords is a searing indictment of the complacency of conventional power politics – and a wake-up call to all those concerned about basic human rights.
Thanks to the pioneering work of Graça Machel and Tony Lake of Unicef we are now more aware than ever of how these children – often seized from their classrooms and rounded up into child armies – are not only denied their childhood, but lose their innocence, growing up without enjoying the basic human right to go to school, and permanently in mortal danger. Not surprisingly the deprivations of youth become translated into their lack of employability and poverty as adults.
The Independent’s campaign is more than an exposure of the violation of rights: it is a call for the righting of wrongs. The exposure of the scale of child militias reminds us of how around the world so many children’s lives – 60 million children in total – are ruined by the denial of basic opportunities; by the persistence of child labour, child marriages, discrimination against girls, as well as the scourge of child militias. These children are denied the right to a childhood and the right to grow up with the benefit of a basic education.
Fifteen million of those who don’t go to school are under 14, working full time in mines, cocoa fields, sweatshops and domestic service. Many of them have been trafficked. Ten million girls each year are forced into marriages against their will, and in total 32 million girls are denied schooling largely due to discrimination and prejudice which undervalues girls’ education.
Fortunately The Independent’s campaign coincides with a new opportunity for radical change. In 2013, a new movement is on the rise – young people proving they are more vociferous in pushing for their rights than the adults who are responsible for them, putting new pressure on governments and international organisations to awaken them from complacency.
Not just in India but in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Burma, young people have already taken to the streets in great numbers in the early days of this year. Demonstrations in Nepal protesting violence against women preceded similar action in India. A powerful movement in Bangladesh has seen young girls declare “child marriage free zones”, rejecting the long history of marriages dictated to them.
The demonstrations in Pakistan and beyond towards the end of last year following the shooting of Malala Yousafzai have been followed by petitions demanding universal education signed by three million people. Most notable within this already impressive figure is that some one million of these names will be those of the young children of Pakistan themselves, those boys and girls as young as eight who are denied basic schooling.
In Burma, where demonstrations were outlawed until recently, 200,000 young people took to the streets in the centre of Rangoon. Encouraged by the anti-slavery organisation Walk Free, they were demanding an end to child trafficking. This wave of protest is set to continue, as further, major demonstrations are being planned next month across Asia and Africa calling for an end to violence against women.
And in India those showing their abhorrence of the recent rape case are not alone in protesting violence perpetrated against innocent and often helpless individuals. Another set of protests is also gaining ground – former child labourers, who have either escaped or been rescued, have been leading a march to end this form of child slavery.
The protests against child labour in India are also accompanied by online petitions organised by Avaaz and local Indian groups with, already, more than 650,000 signatures between them calling on the Indian parliament to pass the legislation to finally outlaw the practice.
The work of the Global March Against Child Labour, brilliantly led by Kailash Satyarthi, which focuses on child trafficking as well as bonded labour, shows youth power in action. Over the course of this year, youth marches, demonstrations and petitions culminating in a summit on banning child labour in Brazil will spread from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to African countries where this form of child exploitation is rife.
This new public energy on display from young people can play its part in energising the campaign to outlaw child militias, too, and will complement and invigorate the long-standing commitment by the UN to do so. Following Graça Machel’s groundbreaking report on the issue in 1996, the excellent UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, prepares each year a report on progress achieved and the challenges remaining. A special session of the United Nations General Assembly chaired by Canada in October each year allows a debate between Member States and the Special Representative. This is backed up throughout the year by a special “Group of Friends on Children and Armed Conflict”. In September last year, the Security Council went one stage further, targeting parties to armed conflict which commit abuses against children, including those who recruit and use children.
I believe that this year we can see huge progress in taking children from today’s exploitation to the opportunity of education tomorrow – and that is my aim. Education is the greatest weapon at our disposal to end both the abuse of children around the globe and the poverty that currently besets generation after generation.
This April, we will hold a summit led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Kim. We will plan, country-by-country, the action needed to end the violation of the basic rights of our children and to ensure the right of a decent education. I hope that the UN will build on its pioneering work reporting the evils of child militias by holding a debate in the General Assembly on all violations of children’s rights, demanding that instead of the downward spiral of exploitation young people suffer, we open the doors to opportunity in education.
What’s more, as the exposure of these abuses of children – aided by The Independent’s campaign – spreads, an audience far beyond the leaders of international institutions can be persuaded to press governments to make 2013 a year of progress.
All Unicef's work with child soldiers in the CAR is funded by donations. Please be as generous as you can. Click here to donate. Text CHILD to 70030 to donate five pounds.
• £6 provides life-saving treatment for one child from fatal diarrhoea, pneumonia, or malaria, all diseases that the children are vulnerable to in the Central African Republic
• £15 pays for schooling for a child who has been rescued from an armed group – including providing all the books and stationary they need.
• £25 provides a child with all the essentials they need when they are first rescued. This ‘welcome kit’ includes clothes, underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, a blanket, mattress, and mosquito net.
• £62 provides vocational training to a child released from armed groups, providing them with a sustainable future
• £103 trains a teacher to help former child soldiers continue their education
• £150 pays for psychological support for one child who has been rescued
• £300 can buy enough toys for a centre for 50 rescued children to play with, to help them regain their childhood by having fun again
• £516 can support one child for a whole month. This covers the cost of everything they need at the rehabilitation centre, including care from dedicated and experienced staff, food, counselling, education, vocational training, and the costs for family reunification