27 December 2023 - Global

2023: a year of catastrophes for children worldwide

Hani* playing with blocks in the Child Friendly Space, run by Save the Children, in Gezira State, Sudan

Hani* playing with blocks in the Child Friendly Space, run by Save the Children, in Gezira State, Sudan.

Hassan*, 14, should be going to school, seeing friends and experiencing the typical highs and lows of adolescence. But when conflict broke out in Sudan earlier this year, his childhood was stolen from him. From the displacement shelter he now calls home, he described to us the nightmares he has because of the death and destruction he has witnessed:

I dream of the tall building that was destroyed, people cut into pieces, and this bomb that fell into a man, that shredded him completely.”

Hassan* is one of the children our psychologists have been supporting in Sudan. They tell us of children’s distress: they are having nightmares, they are unable to sleep; wetting the bed. Hassan* is just one of the 7,600 children forced to flee their homes daily since the war broke out in April.

Meanwhile in Gaza, entire families are being killed, like the tragic case of my beloved colleague Sameh. A growing number of people, including children, are left with no surviving family members. Another colleague told me about a four-year-old girl who turned up at a checkpoint all alone trembling, unable to speak, with cold clammy skin – all signs of shock.

There is increasing violence in the West Bank too, where 69 children have been killed in just over two months. This has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the UN started recording casualties in 2005.  Since October 7th we have also seen an unprecedented increase in Israeli military detention of Palestinian children – 245 in just two months in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and reports are now emerging of more in Gaza. There have also been Israeli child hostages for whom we called to be released.

Next year marks 100 years since the League of Nations – predecessor to the United Nations - adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, penned by Save the Children’s founder Eglantyne Jebb. The catastrophes for children we have seen this year in Sudan and Gaza – as well as the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria that affected 6.2 million children and the record increase in people displaced by conflict the world over – force us to ask how far we have come.

In Gaza, barely any aid has reached people in need and nowhere is safe for children.  This will not change unless there is a ceasefire.  Despite the level of suffering in Sudan, the UN Humanitarian Response plan is not even 40% funded. The same goes for Afghanistan, where more than a third of the children we surveyed have been pushed into work due to soaring poverty. In Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, Rohingya children are now eating 20% less than they were last year due to food ration cuts.  

When we remind ourselves that nearly one in six children worldwide is growing up in a conflict zone – that these needs will only increase – we have to admit that the world is failing to protect children’s rights.

Children affected by conflict are calling for decision-makers to protect them. They want to feel safe in their homes, with their families and friends.

Children like 17-year-old Violeta* from Colombia, the first girl to address the UN Security Council earlier this year, who spoke about the need for children to be involved in peace processes. Moments like this make me proud to lead this organisation – but it is difficult to feel positive about next year and the future without a tidal shift happening.

This means putting children’s rights first by upholding international humanitarian law and standards to protect children in armed conflict. Accountability for crimes against children must be prioritised on both international and national agendas. And we need to urgently increase flexible funding and resources to strengthen child protection, prevent grave violations and support communities that have experienced these violations. The same goes for funding for those affected by other life altering horrors, like earthquakes and increasingly frequent climate disasters.

In the words of Violeta*:

A country that does not allow its children, adolescents and youth to participate in and build towards peace is a country that condemns itself to repeat a future in war.”

We stand side by side with children in the world's toughest places.