Monday, June 23, 2014

Left behind (Conflict-hit children)

This appeared in Republica daily on 23 June 2014.

The process of formation of transitional justice mechanisms has finally started. The bill to form Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Commission of Enquiry into Enforced Disappearances has already been passed by the parliament. But the human rights community and conflict victims have rejected the bill and moved the Supreme Court for its alleged “amnesty provisions” even for serious breaches of human rights. That in itself is a problem, but importantly the apathy of the bill towards the children affected by the conflict is even more troublesome. Nowhere in the bills have the concerns of children been addressed. 

Children bore the brunt of the conflict. Many were injured after being caught in the crossfire. They suffered in the post-conflict period as well because they couldn’t recognize live explosives, to fatal consequences. Around 700 children are reported to have become casualties of landmines and other explosive devices since 2006. 
Normal growth of children was stunted by the loss of care and protection as their parents died or were displaced. Separated from their parents, children across the country have been living in child protection home. This bereavement has caused psychosocial problems. Moreover, there are reports of sexual abuses and disappearance of children during the conflict.

Data of conflict victim children have been made public by various agencies. But it is a pity that the government has no such data. According to the 2005 report of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), more than 500 children have lost their lives, approximately 40,000 were displaced, hundreds wounded, and more than 8,000 rendered orphan or separated from their families during the conflict. 

Central Child Welfare Board’s 2009 report says 19,980 children were affected by the conflict, with almost 50 percent of them displaced; 20 percent had lost either mother or father; 8 percent had lost both the parents and 671 were disabled. Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) estimates a similar number of children as affected by the conflict. Save the Children, meanwhile, claims to have supported 24,368 conflict-hit children since 2006. These data show that the conflict had a profoundly negative impact on children.

Maoist combatants formerly residing in cantonments but disqualified as minors by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) present a further problem. The Maoist practice of recruiting children placed many children in harm’s way. Maoist leaders kept telling the world that they hadn’t recruited any children but nearly 3,000 minors in the cantonments belied their claims. Since these children were informally released without any form of rehabilitation and reintegration package, their vulnerability has increased manifold. 

Left to themselves, these “disqualified” combatants have been facing hurdles in smooth reintegration into the society. The stolen lives of these children have left them with feelings of resentment and frustration. There is every chance of their negative energy being used by criminal elements in the society. Sierra Leone and Liberia serve as examples. There, former child soldiers were involved in substance abuse, violence and thefts. Ismael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone graphically records the plights of child soldiers having difficulty in reintegration. Only social rehabilitation, rather than pecuniary compensation, can guarantee their future. 

The government has made big promises for the rehabilitation and protection of children affected by the conflict. In clause 7.5.1 of Comprehensive Peace Agreement both the parties have committed to special protection of the rights of women and children. National Plan of Action for Children, Nepal 2012 published by Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare has pledged to make arrangements for clear codes of conduct related to children affected by armed conflict, and ensure their rehabilitation within families, communities or institutions. 

Nepal is also a party to Convention on the Rights of Child and its optional protocols which clearly obliges the government to protect children. However, the government has not done anything to translate these obligations into actions. Nepal Peace Trust Fund was established to address conflict-era issues and billions spent in different peace projects, but not a single rupee for the benefit of children. 

To redress these problems, the government should immediately implement its long-term plans and policies for children. Incorporating children’s concerns in the TRC could be the first step. Appropriate mechanisms for involving children in the TRC should be developed. Children who played the roles of victims and perpetrators have been subjected to traumatic events. Thus, it is imperative that a child-friendly environment be ensured through involvement of child specialists in order to avoid re-traumatization. 

Children must be an integral part of TRC process. Important information about the experiences of children should be obtained from adults, child protection agencies and others working with children.TRC should build upon and promote existing structures established by child protection agencies and other re-integration and resettlement support agencies concerning the reunification, reintegration and reconciliation of children through a community-based approach.

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