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Top UN official highlights plight of children

An Afghan boy in police uniform in Kandahar province in November 2007. According to the UN, children are also recruited within the ranks of Afghan National Police and other pro-government militias.
Sayed Sarwar Amani/IRIN

Nowhere in the world are children suffering as much as in Afghanistan, a top UN official has said.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told reporters in Kabul on 3 July that during her six-day visit to Afghanistan she had found that “it takes an Afghan child a very long time to smile.” The conflict had killed, maimed and affected an increasing number of children, she said.

Coomaraswamy did not give any specific figures but said the number of children exploited by anti-government forces for military purposes had increased over the past few months. Children had also been used as “suicide attackers” by the Taliban, she said.

“This is a terrible situation… we urge all parties to the conflict, especially anti-government forces, to take measures to prevent the use of children in conflict.”

Children were also being recruited into the Afghan National Police and pro-government militias, where they were vulnerable to sexual abuse, Coomaraswamy said. “This is illegal and should be eradicated.”

“Easy targets”

Photo: Hazrat Bahar/IRIN
A child killed in aerial strikes by international forces in Khost Province, southeastern Afghanistan, in June 2008. Conflict has killed and maimed an increasing number of children in Afghanistan

According to the UN, children have been detained by all the warring parties, but no one knows exactly how many children are being held in detention centres - even those run by US forces and the government.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said children were often at even greater risk than those directly involved in the conflict.

“Children are easy targets… They are especially vulnerable to two insurgent techniques utilised in Iraq and then in Afghanistan: suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices, also called roadside bombs,” the UNICEF Child Alert Report 2007 stated.

Afghan children have also been killed, wounded, displaced and traumatised by the “intensive use of air power” by international forces, the report said.

Attacks on schools

Over six million students are now enrolled at schools, with almost 40 percent of them girls, according to the Ministry of Education. However, an increasing number of attacks on schools by gunmen associated with Taliban insurgents and other anti-government elements have seriously threatened educational progress.

There have been 311 confirmed attacks on schools in the past 18 months, resulting in 84 deaths and 115 injuries (to schoolchildren, teachers and other school employees). Hundreds of schools in insecure areas have had to close, UNICEF reported.

Insecurity, conservative attitudes and poverty have denied education to over two million school-age children, mainly in the volatile south and southeastern provinces, aid agencies said.

Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
Radhika Coomaraswamy (centre), Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, during a press conference on 3 July in Kabul

New task force

UN officials in Kabul said a comprehensive report on the plight of Afghan children affected by the conflict would be submitted to the UN Security Council in October 2008.

Coomaraswamy said the aim of her visit to Afghanistan was to set up a task force to manage a Monitoring and Report Mechanism (MRM) to report to the Security Council on the “six grave violations” concerning children and armed conflicts - “the killing or maiming of children; recruitment or use of children as soldiers; rape and other grave sexual abuse of children; abduction of children; attacks against schools or hospitals; denial of humanitarian access for children”.

The MRM task force will be headed by the UN but will also include non-governmental organisations and the government, Coomaraswamy said.

Over half of Afghanistan’s estimated 26.6 million people - about 13.9 million - are under 18, and almost six million are under five, according to UNICEF.

Afghanistan also has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world, after Sierra Leone, with 165 deaths per every 1,000 live births, UNICEF reported in June.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHCR) said in a report in April that in a survey involving interviews with 2,250 children, over 42 percent said they did not have access to basic health services.


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