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Monday, December 4, 2023
NAIROBI, Nov 20 2023 (IPS) - As the global community marks World Children’s Day, every child should be guaranteed their rights, including those in the Gaza Strip, where heavy bombardment and military operations by Israel have killed more than 11,000 people, 40 percent of them children.
“Under international humanitarian laws and the Safe Schools Declaration, civilians—in particular children, schools, and school personnel—must be protected. What we are seeing in this conflict are bombs pounding the most densely populated area on earth, schools and other civilian infrastructures being attacked, and an entire population being trapped in the most dire conditions, with no safe place to flee to. Surviving children are maimed, orphaned, or have lost close and extended family. Horrors of unimaginable proportion are unfolding before our eyes,” Yasmine Sherif, Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait, the UN global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, tells IPS.
“No child can or should have to be prepared for what is happening in Gaza. Children and adolescents are hurting and traumatized. According to UNRWA, initial assessments in October showed that at least 91 percent of children are demonstrating signs of acute stress and trauma and are in need of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS).”
According to the UN, children account for nearly half of the population in Gaza. More than 625,000 students and 22,564 teachers have been affected as attacks continue. At least 86 percent of school buildings are either being used as shelters for the displaced population, catering for up to four times their capacity, or have been destroyed.
Camilla Lodi, Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) Global Psychosocial Support Head of the Better Learning Programme, told IPS the impact of war on children was devastating.
“When children experience conflict, war, and displacement, they go through personal, ongoing life threats—constantly witnessing violence and its effects. Prolonged exposure to such traumatic events increases the risk of complications in processing trauma. When the fighting stops, the journey to recovery starts for children and adults who have gone through high levels of stress and trauma. Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) is not a luxury but a necessity. It helps regain a sense of normalcy,” she said.
“NRC works specifically on a psychosocial support program within broader education in emergency interventions. Simply, children cannot learn unless they feel well and safe. MHPSS is an essential, necessary, and mandatory intervention that should be embedded in every education in emergency programs. The Better Learning Programme (BLP) is NRC’s signature non-specialized classroom-based psychosocial support intervention that helps restore learning capacities for children that have gone through trauma and high levels of stress.”
The program has been at the forefront of providing immediate and long-term critical care and psychosocial support for more than a decade, investing in children’s futures in 33 countries, such as Ukraine, Sudan, and Palestine. Lodi stresses that MHPSS is critical in crises and emergencies.
Sherif stresses that as homes and schools lie in ruin in this high-level stress cycle, surviving children are at risk of severe lifelong mental health problems. A life of debilitating chronic anxiety, depression, and various degrees of trauma now beckons for more than 224 million children and adolescents in conflict and crises globally. She adds that Education Cannot Wait, which supports education programs for children in over 40 countries affected by emergencies and protracted crises, has included MHPSS as a core component of all its country-level investments since 2020. This includes support for the NRC’s Better Learning Programme.
“ECW has prioritized MHPSS to protect and promote students’ and teachers’ well-being, as mental health is the foundation of learning. We have a target to invest at least 10 percent of our resources for mental health and psychosocial support services,” says Sherif.
ECW recently announced a $10 million 12-month grant in support of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and UNICEF to provide children in Gaza with life-saving mental health and psychosocial support.
“For Gaza specifically, it is a humanitarian catastrophe defined by a relentless cycle of violence. Past research within the Better Learning Programme found that 1093 students (6–17 years of age) who sought help for nightmares and sleep disturbances reported recurrent traumatic nightmares on average 4.57 nights per week, with an average duration of 2.82 years,” Lodi says.
“We always talk about the cost of inaction. Neglecting MHPSS can result in five significant risks, notably the perpetuation of cycles of violence and trauma. As a conflict concludes, the suffering and psychological impact on children commence and, if left unaddressed, can endure throughout their lives. This neglect also results in the loss of educational and developmental milestones, increasing susceptibility to mental health disorders. Additionally, the diminishing sense of community connectedness, a stabilizer for peace, is compromised. There is also an economic fallout, as increased healthcare costs and long-term productivity losses contribute to a substantial financial and economic impact.”
Lodi stresses that no child should pay the price of adults’ conflict and that a ceasefire is urgent to help re-establish a sense of safety and predictability and for children to resume recreational play and education activities in a safe environment, which will allow a safe break for their body in “emergency, flight mode.”
“The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza cannot continue. All parties must respect the UN Charter, international humanitarian law, and universal human rights. I join my colleagues in the United Nations’ call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire now,” says Sherif.
If soul-shattering human suffering is not halted and safety restored, Sherif says our moral standing as an international community will be questioned by the young generation today and for generations to come. How can we make promises to children in crisis during this World Children’s Day, whose theme is For Every Child, Every Right? Children everywhere in the world, including more than 224 million crisis-affected children, deserve every right and promise delivered despite, and especially because, of their hardships.
IPS UN Bureau Report
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