I don't know if UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake, watched the horror in Peshawar where Taliban gunmen massacred more than 130 school children, play out on 16th December, 2014. If he did, his words just eight days earlier would have seemed hauntingly prescient.
"Children have been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds; they have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves. Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality," Lake had said on 8th December as the United Nations (UN) released a report on children and armed conflict.
The report termed 2014 a year "of horror, fear and despair for millions of children, as worsening conflicts across the world saw them exposed to extreme violence and its consequences, forcibly recruited and deliberately targeted by warring groups. Yet, many crises no longer capture the world's attention."
Attacks on schools, the report added, were on the rise. And it's not Pakistan alone that has suffered. In Syria, where more than 7.3 million children find themselves in the midst of civil war, the UN verified at least 35 attacks on schools in the first nine months of 2014, which killed 105 children and injured nearly 300.
In 2014, hundreds of children around the world were kidnapped from school or on their way to it, while thousands were forcibly recruited by armed groups. As Jonny Cline, CEO of UNICEF Israel, observed: "This year, nightmares came true for too many children..."
Just consider the numbers:
• An estimated 230 million children are affected by armed conflict.
• Of these, nearly 15 million live in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the State of Palestine, Syria and Ukraine.
• In Gaza, 538 children were killed, more than 3,370 were injured, 1,500 were orphaned and 54,000 left homeless in the 50-day summer conflict.
• More than 1.7 million children in Syria are refugees.
• In the Central African Republic, 2.3 million children are affected by conflict; 245,000 live as refugees. In 2014, 432 children were killed or maimed--thrice the number in 2013.
• In South Sudan, the conflict has displaced 750,000 children and turned 326,000 into refugees. Around 12,000 have been recruited or used by armed groups. UN-verified data says more than 600 children have been killed, more than 200 maimed and nearly 100 subjected to sexual violence.
• In Iraq, 2.7 million children have been affected by the conflict. Girls have suffered physical and sexual assault, sexual slavery, trafficking and forced marriage. Some have been sold in open markets. Children have been tortured and many forced to watch or participate in execution and torture.
It's a tragedy told in cold numbers.
While children are the victims here, the solution to this problem cannot be found by focusing on the children alone. It requires a broader, holistic approach--one that tackles the social and political causes that are the root of conflict.
Take poverty, for instance. The prevalence of poverty--acute in many cases--is common to all the countries and regions mentioned above. Common sense suggests that poverty acts like a petri dish for conflict, which in turn intensifies poverty further. Inequality--between, say, communities or races--would create an ideal environment for strife.
It follows that you would need to ensure broader distribution of resources, make the right economic choices to ensure employment, keep inflation in check, focus development efforts on the poorest, and ensure universal education and healthcare. These would go a long way in reducing conflict, thereby making children safer.
While aid for schools, food, shelter, etc, is important, it is not the solution to the cause of the conflict itself. If our children are to be safe, we'll need to tackle the larger issues.