Not only is a war devastating for civilians and can rip apart their entire life, but war also has both mental and physical repercussions on the well-being of children. As modern warfare is typically fought in one country, children suffer the most as they represent the cohort with the highest number of casualties in wars . In 2019, one in six children residing in a conflict-stricken zone have also been a target which leads to lower educational retention and higher dropout rates . There are several types of trauma, which can be grouped into direct effects (psychological damage and displacement), and indirect effects (larger-scale destruction of infrastructure, disrupting children’s food and shelter needs) . Because the consequences of the indirect effects have a lasting legacy, this will be my focus today.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the physical injury that harms children the most, but rather the lack of care in the healthcare system to treat children. Specifically, in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the children are also fighting off a polio outbreak as the war has halted vaccination efforts and destroyed hospitals that provide life-saving treatment for infectious diseases. Given all of the time and funding it took to build the existing healthcare infrastructure, the war has set Ukraine back by at least a decade or more . This is not an isolated incident. The decade-long war in Syria resulted in not one, but two measles epidemics in 2017 and 2018 .
Rape is a weapon of war, and this is an indirect effect that has serious repercussions on the well-being of children and women. In genocides and war-stricken zones, sexual assault was used to extinguish populations who did not fit the ideal image of the human race . Rape was viewed as a mechanism for ethnic cleansing, because young girls would come in contact with someone who was “perfect”. Children are already vulnerable as is, and the war exacerbates this, particularly for young females. Perpetrators will manipulate girls to trade rape in return for basic necessities, such as food, shelter and water. Because these necessities are needed to survive, young girls will sacrifice their bodies to stay alive for one more day. As some of these victims are merely children, these traumatic events not only affect their psychological development, but also their approach to future relationships. In the long run, these events adversely affect brain chemistry, causing children to suffer from mental health issues .
Often, children are the forgotten group during times of war. Since we cannot revert the past, we can only focus on the present and future moving forward. The focus should be placed on how to overcome childhood trauma, with a strong support system in place. Since this can be difficult to find in a war zone, humanitarian organizations should also place an emphasis on non-profit therapists and psychologists to help children work through their trauma. To move on from trauma, one may need closure which takes time for the child to embrace. Since they are still young, this may not occur until they mature to adulthood. In the meantime, social workers can help children develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with trauma, such as newfound hobbies or exercise. Because children are our future, we need to save them as much as we will need to rely on them years down the road.
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