<< Return to InPsych October 2006

By Dr Susie Burke MAPS

A resurgence of violence in the Middle East over the past months has shocked everyone, particularly with the heavy toll it has taken on civilian populations. This is typical of the new pattern of armed conflict that has evolved over the last few decades, which kills mostly civilians, inflicts extensive psychological damage, destroys communities, and displaces masses of people (Wessells, 1998). A tragic feature of modern day warfare is the increasing number of child victims. A recent UNICEF report (2002) highlighted the plights of millions of children affected by armed conflicts in the last decade of the 20th century.

Whilst international humanitarian law asserts that children's rights must be respected during armed conflict, children are victims of war in a multitude of ways. Children are often witnesses of violence, forced to flee their homes, displaced within their countries or crossing borders as refugees, separated from their families, held in captivity or simply killed. Children (and women) face a heightened risk of rape, sexual humiliation, prostitution and other forms of gender-based violence. Children are vulnerable to the stress of caregivers, and to the disruption of health, education and community services (Machel, 1996). Hundreds of thousands of children are also actively engaged in military activities as combatants and in various support roles. Children as young as seven (Wessels, 2000) are being forcibly recruited, coerced and induced to become combatants. Children are also particularly at risk of disturbing landmines and unexploded ordnance. Children in at least 68 countries live amid the threat of more than 110 million landmines still lodged in the ground, in addition to millions of items of unexploded bombs, shells, grenades and depleted uranium that litter their villages and surrounds (Machel, 1996). No-one is under any illusion that children can emerge from war unharmed.

War has a catastrophic effect on the health and wellbeing of nations. Indeed, studies have shown that conflict situations cause more mortality and disability than any major disease (see Murthy & Lakshminarayana, 2006). The psychosocial impact on children can be serious and long lasting, and there is consistent evidence of higher rates of trauma-related psychological problems in children. Of the different age groups, the most vulnerable are the adolescents (Murthy & Lakshminarayana, 2006). Typical psychological symptoms include increased fear, anxiety, insecurity and aggressiveness, loss of trust, nightmares, trouble sleeping, psychosomatic symptoms, regressive behaviours, difficulty concentrating, depression, and feeling hopeless about the future (Machel, 1996).

Rebuilding infrastructure and shattered villages after war is one thing - rebuilding families and helping individuals to heal psychologically and emotionally is another. It has been found that one of the most effective and sustainable approaches to the recovery of children is to mobilise the existing social care system (Machel, 1996). Experience has shown that with supportive caregivers and secure communities, most children will achieve a sense of healing. Priority should be given to prevent further traumatic experiences such as preventing family separation, undertaking practical measures to prevent gender-based violence, and avoiding institutionalisation. Re-establishing a sense of normality is important (EPPI, 2005).

But what, too, of the consequences of the increasingly used modern day warfare techniques of destabilisation aimed at sowing fear and hatred (Kaldor, 1999), thus planting seeds of future armed conflicts? What about the legacy of hatred and the images of the enemy that persist long after the bombing stops? How do we stop the cycles of violence? How do children who have lived through war stop seeing violence as a solution to their problems?

Two photos that were published on the front page of The Australian (July 19, 2006) illustrated the problem well. One picture showed soldiers photographing an Israeli girl writing a message on a shell that was ready to be fired towards Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon. The second photo showed a young injured Lebanese boy holding onto a toy rifle reported to be a get-well gift. Children are easily indoctrinated to see the ‘other' as the enemy, and to see violence as a legitimate solution.

Not surprisingly, the group most at risk for continuing cycles of violence are youths, and particularly those who have been recruited as child soldiers (Guyot, 2005) or refugees (Retamal & Devadoss, 1998). These children are regarded as a vastly destabilising force if ignored. It is crucial that these young people receive adequate attention in terms of social reintegration. The successful rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers is an essential step towards a stable and lasting peace.

Culturally-specific psychosocial rehabilitation

It's not enough, however, to affect change in an individual. Economic empowerment, capacity building, trauma healing, and community-building tasks must all take place alongside one another. It is recognised that local communities have a vital role to play in post-conflict healing, reconciliation and the social reintegration of war-affected children. Successful programs involve young people as active participants in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of sustainable, community-based initiatives. They endeavour to identify school, job and vocational training placements which link psychosocial healing with economic reconstruction, provide young people with skills that will enable them to support themselves, and which provide hope for the future (Wessells & Moneiro, 2001). Increasingly, therefore, programs focusing on the psychosocial rehabilitation of children and youths are linked with the larger dilemma of national reconciliation and peace-building. (For examples, see a UN map of programs for adolescent participation during conflict/post-conflict situations worldwide (UNICEF, 2003)).

Unfortunately, aid programs designed to rehabilitate war-affected populations often fail to address the needs of children. Yet the greatest possibility of establishing regional peace lies in breaking the cycle of violence affecting children. So what can the rest of us do?

First, we need to effect a major shift in attitude towards the involvement of children in war. Recently we have seen a rising awareness of the impact of war on young people and the exploitation of children in armed conflicts. There has been a strengthening of international legal norms designed to protect children from war (e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions, and other international humanitarian and human rights laws). Translating that progress into action on the ground remains a significant challenge however, because of insufficient data on the scope of the problem and a lack of political will to enforce these laws. The view is still that the suffering of children in war is regrettable but inevitable. This view needs to change.

The success of efforts to protect and promote the rights of children often depend on persuading others of the value of such actions and the need to increase awareness of the critical situation. The UN has published a list of actions that anyone can do to participate in measures to protect children in armed conflict (see box story for examples).

Finally, the more we understand the psychology of war (e.g., the use of enemy images) and alternative methods of conflict resolution, the better we are at protesting about war in general, and believing that peace is possible. But that is another story for another time.

Advocating for children's rights: Actions for everyone 

The international community must do all it can to prevent the outbreak of fighting by addressing the socio-economic roots of conflict and banning arms shipments to conflict zones. All actions to resolve conflicts and implement peace agreements should focus strongly on the needs of women and children. Following is a selection of some of the suggestions made by the UN to protect children caught up in armed struggles - go to www.un.org/rights/h_rights.htm for the complete list. All individuals, professional practitioners and civil society organisations can take the following steps:

  • Mount public information campaigns to ensure that parents, schools and policy-makers are familiar with local and international human rights standards and humanitarian law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Assist in creating an enabling environment for child rights activities.
  • Encourage health professionals to disseminate child rights information and report violations encountered in the course of their work. Health professionals have a special obligation to speak out. 
  • Discourage the institutionalisation of children in conflict and post-conflict situations.
  • Speak out against the use of children as soldiers and promote the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, aimed at raising the age of recruitment into armed forces from 15 to 18 years.
  • Support the global campaign for a worldwide ban on the manufacture, sale and distribution of landmines and other weapons that injure and kill mainly civilians, and boycott companies that profit from the production and sale of such weapons. 


EPPI (2005). Review: How effective are measures taken to mitigate the impact of direct experience of armed conflict on the psychosocial and cognitive development of children aged 0-8. Review written by Early Years Review Group, University of London.

Guyot, J. (2005). Suffer the Children: the need for psychosocial rehabilitation as a function of peace-building. Paper presented at the 4th World Congress on Family Law and Children's Rights, Cape Town, South Africa, 20 - 23 March 2005.

Kaldor, M. (1999). New wars and old wars: organised violence in a global era. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Machel, G. (1996). Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. New York: United Nations.

Murthy, R.S., & Lakshminarayana, R. (2006). Mental health consequences of war: a brief review of research findings. World Psychiatry, 5(1), 25-30.

Retamal, G., & Devadoss, M. (1998). Education in a Nation with Chronic Crisis: The Case of Somalia. In G. Retamal and R.

Aedo-Richmond, (eds.). Education as a Humanitarian Response. London: Cassell, pp. 74-93.

UNICEF (2003). Map of Programmes for Adolescent Participation during Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations. UNICEF. http://action.web.ca/home/cpcc/attach/Unicef-Map_of_Programmes.pdf

UNICEF (2002). The state of the world's children 2002. Early childhood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wessells, M. (1998). The changing nature of armed conflict and its implications for children: The Graca Machel/UN study. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 4 (4), 321- 334.

Wessells, M. (2000). How can we prevent child soldiering? Peace Review, 12, 407-414.

Wessells, M.G. & Moneiro, C. (2001). Psychosocial interventions and postwar reconstruction in Angola: intervweaving Western and traditional approaches. In D. Christie, R. V. Wagner & D. Winter (Eds.), Peace,conflict and violence: Peace psychology for the 21st century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.