Involving children directly and indirectly in armed conflict is a violation of human rights
ajid Khan Safi from Safi sub-division in Mohmand district, is eleven years old. Dressed in a black school uniform he wears an expression of excitement. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has reconstructed his school with financial support from an international donor. Ten years ago, militants had blown up this school. At the time, he was an infant.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, militants have not only targeted school buildings but also attacked students and teachers. The heart-wrenching tragedy of December 16, 2014, when militants killed over 140 people, including over 130 children, at the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar still rings fresh in memory.
When the militancy was at its peak, students too were not spared. On June 1, 2009, some militants kidnapped dozens of students and teaching staff of Razmak Cadet College in North Waziristan. Later, the local administration and tribal elders negotiated with the militants and the hostages were released. After the horrific incident, the college was closed for two years. The students were shifted to Peshawar, where they lived in rented buildings at various locations. The classes were not regular.
Some of the students were injured. They bore long-lasting impacts on their mental health, growing up with trauma. Involving children directly and indirectly in war and armed conflict is a violation of human rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Imran Takkar a Peshawar-based human rights activist with a focus on child rights, says that in conflict areas, children have been directly targeted in terror attacks. Some of the children’s parents were also killed. They have now been displaced from their homes and are not in contact with their families. “Children’s rights have been violated. Their schools have been blown up by militants. They were deprived of basic health facilities in conflict areas,” he says.
During the militancy, at least 1,200 schools were destroyed or partially damaged in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The militants had blown up at least 120 schools in the Mohmand district. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attacks on schools.
Sajid Khan Safi is hopeful because after the reconstruction of his school, he will be able to get a high school education in his village. Due to militancy, his cousins and elder brother were unable to get an education. They have been left with no other option but to migrate to the Middle East as unskilled labour.
Imran Takkar says when schools are blown up, there is no peace. “How can a child get education in an environment where security is a challenge? Right to education is a basic human right. Hundreds of children dropped out of schools as a result of terrorism and militancy in tribal districts,” he says.
Akhtiyar Muhammad Mohmand, 21, is a young car mechanic in Peshawar’s Sho’ba Bazaar. He grew up in conflict. Instead of listening to fairy tales, Mohmand says, he listened to horrifying incidents of bomb blasts and militant attacks. He lost several family members and villagers to these attacks. His family shifted to Peshawar. “I don’t have good childhood memories because most of my time was spent in busy workshops. I had no time to play with other children,” he says.
Takkar says during militancy in the region, families were displaced from tribal districts to camps. “Many children were separated from their families. Some faced sexual abuse. Many were forced to beg and others were forced into child labour. Many children were victims of early marriage (child marriages),” he says. “The war impacted children, both physically and mentally.”
The mental impacts of armed conflict on children are long-lasting. It is very unfortunate that this serious problem has not been addressed by the state. “The children whose parents and siblings died in front of their eyes have been left scarred. Unfortunately, no attention has been given to the rehabilitation of those children.”
The 2019 International Review of the Red Cross titled Living through war: Mental health of children and youth in conflict-affected areas says the effects of war on children experiencing armed conflict during childhood and adolescence pose serious mental health risks and threats to a child’s development. Exposure to different types of violence, the duration of the conflict, and the nature of experienced and witnessed traumatic events are all associated with the onset and severity of mental disorders among conflict-affected children.
“Government and non-governmental organisations have rebuilt schools, ensured basic health facilities and restored communication infrastructure. But no concrete measures have been taken for the psycho-social counselling of the children indirectly affected by war.”
The writer is a multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney