Picture Credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Children must not become collateral damage

We must do more to protect children from adult mistakes, not just in Ukraine but here in the UK

Artillery Row

Oksana is a Ukrainian mother.  As she messages me, her profile photo of her and her two young children flashes up. They look happy, the children laughing as they hug her — childhood as it should be.

Standing on this precipice, it is hard not to feel incredibly bleak

That photo was taken two years ago. Today Oksana and her family are in a remote hamlet of just a few cottages, hiding, where she has been sheltering with her children, her godchildren and nephew since fleeing their home town of Lviv in Western Ukraine, last week.   She tells me “it’s good and not so good.  The fear arises that the landing party may be launched in this area and then we will not be able to defend ourselves….”.  They are 15 kilometres by snow road to the nearest shop — their only option is to go on foot — “we eat sparingly”, she adds.

Safety is relative and any number of harrowing reports and images of the last week remind us that, for now at least, Oksana and her family are safer than they might otherwise be– a mother clutching the pink scarf of her mortally wounded child; a child on a swing outside a bombed apartment block; baby Mia – born in the Kyiv metro as troops advance on the city.  

War is always terrible for children.  Even for those children who survive, injury, death, disruption and dislocation scar children’s lives in ways that span their life trajectory and whose pervasive consequences ripple through generations.  The timing of this war feels particularly cruel, following as it does a period of unprecedented turmoil for children worldwide.   In Ukraine, 35% of schools were still closed due to Covid as late as November 2021 and attacks on kindergartens and schools have been an all too familiar reality for children in eastern Ukraine over the last eight years.  “The children of Ukraine need peace, desperately, now”, pleaded UNICEF last week.

There is a particularly vicious brutality in seeing children reduced to collateral damage — contradicting society’s collective duty to protect and to nurture its young, and violating basic principles of natural law and morality — not to mention international humanitarian law.  

Many of us recoil at the notion — witness the widespread horror last week in response to news that the children’s cancer hospital in Kyiv had been struck by artillery fire — one child killed and two others wounded; or in a different context the indignation which greeted calls last week from a group of Conservative MPs who suggested the offspring of oligarchs be expelled from our private schools — “The sins of the fathers, or indeed the mothers, should not be visited on their children” retorted Boris Johnson.

However, uncomfortable though it is, global society has for the near entirety of the last two years, not only tolerated children — their education, mental health, physical health —  being reduced to collateral damage, but has encouraged and courted it.  

Covid was not, contrary to what many politicians would have had us believe, ever a war, and the trauma that children endure during wars is incomparable to any other living horror.  However, for some children, the impacts of our response to that virus may not be dissimilar to impacts felt as a result of war — disruption, injury to physical health, mental health, even, for some, death — disruption to healthcare services during Covid is thought to have caused some 228,000 additional child deaths in South Asia alone.

As with war, many of those impacts will be felt in ways that endure and transcend the lives of the impacted generation – poorer health outcomes, ghosted children with implications for social mobility, widening and perhaps unbreachable inequality.  The situation in Ukraine, threatening as it does the peace of our times, casts a dark cloud over the world’s children at a time when those children have never more needed stability and routine. Standing on this precipice, it is hard not to feel incredibly bleak.  

For children like Oksana’s, life is reduced to a battle for survival

There are many who would argue that children, far from being collateral damage, ought to be the focal point of any society, and indeed at some level as a global collective we appear to understand the inherent morality and logic to this — “the best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children”, reads that paradigm Article, 3(1), of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child — its 195 signatories making it one of the most ratified treaties known to the world.

Yet words are cheap and whilst the UN CRC is one of the most ratified treaties surely it must stand today as also one of the most flagrantly violated ones. For society to make its children the focal point in deed, as well as word, a paradigm shift would be needed. We would need to structure our policymaking, taxation systems and goals around the family; to respect and protect child health and wellbeing, whilst recognising children as the greatest economic asset a country has.  

Our education spending would rival defence spending — together seen as the two critical pillars of a state’s ability to survive and to thrive.  We’d plan for decades rather than for parliaments and we’d make whatever constitutional changes were necessary to effect that level of structural change.

Lofty ideals such as these bear little relationship to our current reality.

Nearly a century has passed since Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, said  “All wars, whether just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child” — and still worldwide, one in six children – some 357 million – live in conflict zones.  “The first words of my godson,” Oksana tells me after they had fled, were “it’s so quiet here, you can’t hear the sirens and you can sleep peacefully”.  For children like Oksana’s, life is reduced to a battle for survival — a battle not to become, once more, the rubble of someone else’s war. 

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