Review: The Impact of War on Children

Graça Machel, with photographs by Sebastião Salgado, Macmillan 2001

By Susan McClelland (reviewer)

"I did learn some things when I was with the rebels. I learned how to shoot, how to lay anti-personnel mines and how to live on the run. I especially knew how to use an AK-47 twelve-inch, which I could dismantle in less than one minute. When I turned 12 they gave me an RPG, because I had proved myself in battle."

- Abducted child, now a 19-year-old soldier in northern Uganda

In 1994, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali asked Graça Machel, the former education minister for Mozambique, to conduct a review on children in armed conflict. Machel's findings, presented to the General Assembly three years later, disturbingly illustrated a world fraught with internal and external wars and that these wars were affecting the lives of children more than in any other period in history. Conflicts, once fought on battlegrounds far from civilian communities, were being waged on city streets and in the apartment buildings and homes of innocent participants. Schools and medical facilities had become targets and children increasingly were the combatants after being abducted by armies. Children were witnessing the murders of friends and relatives and were being tortured, sexually abused and maimed themselves. Prior to World War Two, the numbers of soldiers killed during conflict far outweighed those of civilians. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, 90 per cent of fatalities were civilians, more than half of whom were children.

In 2001, Machel wrote The Impact of War on Children to gauge the progress nations have made on promises to increase child safety, including supporting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that at all times during war, children must be protected. There are some initiatives deserving of celebration. African aid workers have implemented computer systems which have reunited thousands of displaced children with their parents. And women are increasingly taking action in rebuilding their communities in the aftermath of war, like in Rwanda. Yet tragically, Machel notes that much more needs to be done. In 2001, it was estimated that more than 300,000 child soldiers were involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. Machel also makes the direct link between the growth of HIV/AIDS and war. Girls and women contract the disease when raped or are forced into prostitution, and then they spread the disease to their children. The numbers of women dying from HIV/ AIDS in Africa are so great that schools have had to be closed from lack of teachers and the numbers of affected orphan children are escalating.

The Impact of War on Children is divided into sections that outline key areas in which children are significantly affected by war. But it isn't just a presentation of the grim statistics. In each chapter, Machel offers solutions that warring factions and the entire international community must pursue to improve the lives of children. These solutions include keeping schools open; creating employment opportunities for parents; providing vocational and academic opportunities for the girl child; combating racial and gender stereotypes, and rebuilding infrastructure. Machel also talks in detail about how broad-based economic sanctions adversely impact children but do little to alter the regime in which they were intended. A 1999 UNICEF report, for instance, showed that infant mortality and child deaths increased significantly in Iraq after economic sanctions were imposed.

Malnutrition and illnesses that can easily be controlled by medicine run rampant. And only 53 per cent of Iraqi children are enrolled in school. (Prior to the sanctions, education participation was one of the highest in the middle East. The book offers guidelines on how to work with communities devastated by war and rebuild families and children's dreams. Machel stresses the importance of focusing not only on the basic needs of war victims, such as food and shelter, but also on psycho-social supports, schooling, and play. Machel's book is not a pleasant read - and the photographs by Sebastião Salgado only add to the despair. It is a must-read, though, as it brings to the forefront the sick reality of war that can no longer be ignored. As child psychiatrist and McMaster University Peace Studies professor Joanna Santa Barbara says: "War is unnecessary and there are alternatives. We (the West) often take altruistic postures on the issue of children affected by war but there is a disconnect. As the US prepares to unleash thousands of missiles on Baghdad, we forget the hundreds of thousands of children who will be affected by this."

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003, page 29. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Susan McClelland here

Peace Magazine homepage