Every child has the right to access quality health care. However, due to violence, destruction and displacement caused by armed conflict, millions of children find themselves barred from receiving basic medical and mental services. According to the United Nations, almost 250 million children are affected by armed conflict worldwide. Thus, the work being carried out by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is crucial to protecting children’s right to health in times of conflict.
How Children’s Health is Threatened by Conflict
In recent years, an unprecedented number of children—approximately 28 million—have been displaced by conflict. This displacement has often forced children to live in precarious living arrangements that pose a threat to their health. Children tend to fall victim to communicable diseases as they are unable to receive proper immunization. Additionally, refugee children encounter greater difficulties in accessing health care as a result of discrimination, language barriers or legal status.
Furthermore, today the number of attacks on hospitals during times of conflict is increasing. These attacks cause direct harm to children while also destroying the institutions where they would normally receive essential health care services.
UNICEF in South Sudan
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund’s work in South Sudan has been instrumental in protecting children’s right to health in the country during the civil war that began in December of 2013. UNICEF has been heavily involved in providing health services since the start of the conflict and had vaccinated 3,386,098 children against measles and “provided primary health care services to 3,631,829 children” between 2013 and 2017 period. Additionally, in 2017, UNICEF launched 51 “rapid response missions” to reach communities that are not typically recipients of food aid assistance, and was able to reach thousands of children facing malnutrition.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF has distributed essential medicines and medical equipment, established “triage and screening points/areas for early recognition and referrals of suspected COVID-19 cases” and continued its psychosocial support services. UNICEF was also able to “treat 267,000 children under 5 affected by severe acute malnutrition” and vaccinated 312,272 children against measles in 2020 alone.
Save the Children in Yemen
Protecting children’s right to health care has been a top priority for Save the Children in Yemen. Due to an incredibly destructive and violent war that has now reached its fifth year, the health sector in Yemen has been severely affected as only 50% of the nation’s health care facilities are functional.
Save the Children has stepped in to support local health care clinics, providing emergency services, vaccinations and food assistance to child victims of airstrikes, bombings and alarming rates of severe acute malnutrition, which have already claimed the lives of thousands of Yemeni children.
The organization is the largest aid agency in the country. During the first four years of the conflict, Save the Children provided services to about three million children. It is committed to continuing its support efforts and raising awareness of the need for greater humanitarian aid funding to better protect children’s right to health in the country, especially with the additional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The International Rescue Committee in Syria
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is playing a vital role in protecting Syrian children’s right to health during a war that continues to displace millions of people. The organization provides health services to approximately 500,000 children within Syria and to thousands more who have fled to neighboring countries. Within Syria, IRC’s efforts include partnering with local groups to bring medicine and other medical supplies to those who need them, running clinics, “[mobilizing] teams to provide lifesaving trauma services, primary and reproductive care” and providing counseling services.
The IRC has expanded its medical services in Jordan to include primary health care and mobile outreach to Syrian refugees. Most Syrian refugees not living in refugee camps rely on the IRC to provide health care services and to treat communicable diseases. Additionally, in Iraq, the IRC provides “creative healing activities” to help Syrian refugee children dealing with war-related traumas.
Recently, the IRC has been heavily involved in working with local communities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and has launched various initiatives along with the World Health Organization to bring essential services to displaced Syrian children.
Humanitarian organizations like UNICEF, Save the Children and the IRC are protecting children’s right to health in vulnerable and war-torn countries. However, there is still much to do to provide children with adequate healthcare and protection from preventable diseases and infections. Governments, non-profit organizations and donors from the global community must take action to support children’s right to essential health services. By protecting this vulnerable group, we take one more step toward equality and global health.
– Emely Recinos