Danny Glenwright is president and chief executive officer of Save the Children.
Dana was a toddler when civil war erupted in Syria a decade ago. Now she is a teenager and the war is still rumbling on – affecting the futures of millions of young people like her.
Long-running conflicts in countries such as Syria have, tragically, been largely forgotten by the rest of the world. But not by children like Dana. She had only finished one year of schooling when her family fled their home. “The schools were getting bombed. So there was no education,” said her mother, Fadila.
The family of 10 ended up in the al-Hol displacement camp in northern Syria, where Dana could sleep safely at night without fear of bombardment. She was starting to thrive, attending a learning centre and spending time with friends. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and her life was turned upside down once again.
“We forgot all of the pain and suffering that we had been through,” Dana said. “But coronavirus came and reopened our old injuries. It stopped the education.”
Most children in Syria stopped learning for months, with no access to remote teachers or electronic devices. Missing out on school learning is one challenge that many Canadian families can understand much better after the year we’ve had. Yet we came together to find ways to help our children through the pandemic crisis.
In places such as Syria, lack of education, hunger and reduced access to health services are not new – and they’re only the tip of the iceberg. We also need to protect this generation of children everywhere – these children cannot wait for help.
More than 60 million children need assistance in just eight countries where armed conflict, violence and lack of food are part of daily life. Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Myanmar and Nigeria: It’s a roll call that is too often associated with suffering, especially for children such as Dana, who have known little else.
On many visits to some of these countries, I’ve witnessed children’s incredible resilience and leadership. They have demonstrated again and again their ability to participate in finding solutions and improving their lives and their communities. Their strength, their smiles and their grace remain steadfast despite the immense hardship these children experience.
That is why we cannot give up on children in crisis.
We cannot ignore the clear warning signs of acute food insecurity and risk of potential famine in several of these countries. The pandemic has affected the education of more than 300 million children and the most deprived and marginalized are at risk of dropping out of school forever. The COVID-19 crisis is also leaving more children at risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect, especially young girls like Dana.
At the beginning of last year, the United Nations estimated that nearly 170 million people needed humanitarian assistance. In 2021, this global number is expected to rise to 235 million – a 40-per-cent increase. Half of them are children.
It’s a staggering number. If we don’t take decisive action now, the steady advances we’ve been making to improve the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable girls and boys will be set back by decades.
Yet humanitarian aid responses remain horribly underfunded – particularly in conflict-torn Syria and Yemen, where children’s rights are most in jeopardy.
We are urging all Canadian policy makers to speak up for the rights of children in crisis whenever they have a platform to do so, including at the coming Group of Seven and Group of 20 summits. They should continue to incorporate children’s voices and perspectives in political processes and policy discussions on the issues that affect them.
As we continue our vaccine rollouts here in Canada, and after the difficult year that we’ve all experienced, we surely cannot turn our backs on the millions of children such as Dana, who like our own children here, deserve to live, thrive and fully enjoy all of their rights.
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