Every Child Deserves Peace

Our Moral Duty to Protect Children in Conflict


Asma Fazal, MD

Publish date

Every Child Deserves Peace
Tag(s): Editor's pick
Topic(s): Children/Adolescents

Over three thousand children have been killed in the first 25 days of the Palestine-Israel conflict, with one child being killed every fifteen minutes. The news of more children dying, more houses and hospitals being bombed, and more kids becoming orphans wakes us up every day.

The proportion of children residing in war areas has increased 74% in the past ten years. Many countries are seeing more violent conflicts this decade than they had in the previous 30. As a result, over 30 million children have been forced to relocate. Up to 85% to 95% of the casualties in recent wars are of civilians, and more than 50% of those are children.  It is astounding how many children are losing their lives and getting injured.

Kids are now considered prime targets. 

Disregarding Protections

Children living in conflict-ridden areas experience unnecessary, unbelievable horrors. Not only can conflicts and wars cause a great deal of mortality, but they also cause enormous terror, economic harm, and mass relocation. War kills and uproots countless numbers of children annually, psychologically weakens thousands more, destroys essential resources like food, clean water, shelter, healthcare, and schools, and denies them access to social and economic opportunities that are thought to be essential to their well-being. Protecting children is the most fundamental norm of war, yet it is disregarded from Afghanistan to Mali to Palestine, Israel, Libya, and beyond.

Wars’ Six Grave Violations

The UN Security Council has outlined and strongly denounced six grave violations against children during wars. These violations include injuring and killing children; attacking hospitals and schools; recruiting or enlisting children in armed groups; sexual violence against children, including rape; kidnapping children; and preventing children in war-torn areas from receiving humanitarian aid. It is commonly known that enduring, extremely stressful childhood experiences, such as being uprooted from one’s home and being separated from family members, cause long-term brain damage and negatively impact overall health because the displaced household experiences a significant decrease in food supply and worsened access to water and sanitation. Children’s mental health can be significantly impacted by conflicts as well. 

Permanent Damage

The scars from war are permanent. Research indicates that childhood toxic stress alters the structure and function of the brain as well as hormonal and psychophysiological regulation, changing the course of development irreversibly. Psychological symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, insomnia, somatization, and stress (pre-flight, flight, and resettlement stress) are linked to maltreatment experienced as a child. These symptoms impact children throughout their lives, worsening numerous health outcomes. These children come to feel that violence is a regular aspect of life since they are exposed to horrific acts of violence during childhood.

Moral Duty to Shield Children

Children cannot thrive without peace. Since fair and just societies safeguard children, shielding children from conflict areas is our moral duty. The cornerstone of global health is justice. Human rights are legally guaranteed and serve as a safeguard against acts that violate people’s basic freedoms and dignity. These rights encompass political, economic, social, and civil rights and are relevant to all people. International human rights law recognizes that everyone has the right to health care, including children living in conflict zones. Children cannot wait for the peace process to start; efforts must be taken to put an end to these terrible wars. We need to double our efforts to put a stop to these armed conflicts, but we also need to make sure that children are not attacked.

The World Health Organization and the United Nations, in particular UNICEFSave the Children, and World Vision, are caring for and safeguarding children who are experiencing violence. They are also speaking out for these children and interacting with all sides involved in the conflict to guarantee their rights are respected. In the current Palestine-Israel conflict, humanitarian access is prohibited. If all the supply channels continue to be blocked off and there is ongoing violence, children and families in Gaza will run out of food, water, energy, medicine, and safe access to hospitals. Fuel is crucial to the functioning of vital infrastructure, including water pumping stations, desalination plants, and hospitals. More than a hundred babies are housed in neonatal critical care units; some of them are in incubators and require mechanical breathing, so having a steady power supply is essential. According to the WHO, hospitals in the Gaza Strip are using backup generators because the fuel is expected to run out in the next few days.

If hospitals close, incubators begin to malfunction, children continue to drink contaminated water, and they are unable to seek medical care when they are ill, the death toll will rise dramatically.

Ceasefire: Every Minute Matters

Children and families in war zones need an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian access.

Every minute matters in providing life-saving assistance. UNICEF is urging an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

An urgent humanitarian pause is required to guarantee unhindered and safe access to children in need, regardless of who or where they are in a conflict. UNICEF is making this appeal to action to safeguard children during times of war. It is an appeal for combatants and those in positions of power to fulfill their duties to children. It is an appeal to nations, the UN Security Council, and other establishments to ensure that those who commit crimes against children face consequences. Furthermore, it is an appeal to everyone on the planet to insist on the change that we know is achievable. However, to guarantee that children are no longer the targets of war, we need persistent political and public pressure.

An entire generation of children is in danger from these ongoing conflicts. Our time is experiencing a moral crisis, and we must never accept this as the “new normal.” We must build these children a future free from harm because every child, everywhere, deserves peace.

Asma Fazal, MD, MRCPI, MHSc, HEC-C is a senior clinical ethicist at Advocate Health, Chicago, IL.

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