Monday, 17 December 2012

Giving Children A Voice

Image taken from 'Out in the Cold' ©Save the Children

The Syrian conflict has now entered its 21st month and is showing few signs of abating. Over the course of this period between 40,000 and 55,000 Syrians have been killed and about 1.2 million people are said to be displaced.

The violence has been universal, afflicting all parts of the country's population, but one of the most striking features of this civil war has been brutality enacted on children. Thousands of children have died in attacks and many more have been injured, traumatised and driven from their homes.

Save the Children has followed the conflict closely; having published a number of timely reports the charity, like UNICEF, has set up an appeal to protect Syria's children and provide them with food, shelter and emotional support.

Save the Children's most recent report 'Out in the Cold, Syria's Children Left Unprotected' documents the appalling winter conditions facing child refugees who have dispersed across the Middle East, attempting to find refuge in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Sub-zero temperatures have already hit the region and “startling low levels of aid” (Out in the Cold, page 14)  mean that children will have to endure this winter without enough support. According to Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of the STR, world leaders must act quickly:

“[the] international community needs to match its diplomatic and security concerns with funding to help children. Unless there is a surge in funding, thousands of children are going to spend a bitter winter without proper shelter from the cold, and many will become sick as a result.”

One only has to look at Andrea Bruce's devastating photo essay published earlier this year by The New York Times to understand the truly horrendous effects that cold can have. Bruce's haunting, Caravaggio like pictures tell the story of Lailuma, an Afgan mother living with her family in a refugee camp outside Kabul who lost nine of her children over the course of the winter.

'Out in the Cold' follows a similar structure to Save the Children's previous report 'Untold Atrocities,The Stories of Syria's Children' in that the majority of its contents is made up of first person accounts of the deteriorating situation for refugees. Among the testimonies are stories of children huddling three to a blanket, sleeping in makeshift shelters made of billboards and falling sick as temperatures plunge in the region. One such story comes from 11 year old Ali, who has been living in an abandoned school in northern Lebanon for close to two years:

“I need clothes to wear... My parents dont have money, they dont have anything. Who should I ask for clothes from? I'm not happy at all. We would love to go back to Syria.”

A feature of these reports is that they break from what might be seen as a more traditional style of research based dissemination. Instead, they aim to allow the emotive force of the featured children's stories to emphasise the need for changes to be made. This is certainly not a new form of reporting; organisations from past and present have released similar reports and campaigns, however, it seems that these groups are increasingly using children's voices to deliver their message in a bid to inform policy making. Aside from STR, UNICEF has dedicated a section of their overall mission statement to the VOICE's of children, the UN followed up on its MACHEL Strategic Review by publishing a compilation of the views and recommendations of some 1,700 young people from 92 countries to raise awareness about the issues facing children in armed conflict and Defence for Children International has released a number of publications voicing the issues faced by Palestinian's in East Jerusalem.

It is arguable that in highly politicized humanitarian crises like the one in Syria or nearby Palestine, the simplicity of a child's story transcends the debate over who is in the wrong and forces us to remember that innocent humans are suffering. There will of course be those who criticize such reports, arguing that they only provide a limited perspective on complex situations. However, it seems that if a one sided report is going to be effective - using first person child accounts to drive an argument may be a less fallible method than others as children are unlikely to approach their testimonies with a strong political leaning. Save the Children's Syrian reports are undoubtedly subjective, they have an agenda, but the stories coming out of them are far from politicized, they do not point fingers, they only speak of the confusion and terror felt by children who cannot comprehend the violence going on around them. At a time when we are bombarded with information on a daily basis, 'Out in the Cold' and the reports that have preceded it offer a concise, easily accessible and striking message that forces us to view the Syrian conflict through the lens of those who most need rescuing from it. 

Robbie Lawrence
Wikichild Coordinator

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