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Speech: Kevin Watkins at Wilton Park Dialogue on the Mental Health Needs of Children and Adolescents affected by Armed Conflict, Wednesday 17 January 2018

Let me start by thanking Wilton Park for hosting this important dialogue. I’m delighted Save the Children has been able to support the event alongside our colleagues in the Department for International Development.

Perhaps I could start with a personal reflection.

In the last year or so, I have had an opportunity to visit Save the Children’s humanitarian response programmes in North-East Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, northern Uganda, and, just a few weeks ago, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where we are responding to the Rohingya crisis.

During these visits I have had an opportunity to listen to the children at the heart of your agenda over the next few days. The phrase ‘affected by conflict’ somehow fails to do justice to their experiences.

In Borno, Nigeria, I met children who had been raped, or seen brothers, sisters and parents killed or wounded.

In Uganda, I spoke to South Sudanese children from Equatoria state who had fled the unspeakable violence unleashed against their communities. Many had arrived unaccompanied by parents.

In Bangladesh I met one Rohingya child after another who struggled to describe what are indescribable acts of violence. We documented their stories in our report Horrors I will never forget – a phrase used by a 12 year-old boy who had seen neighbours killed with machetes.

These individual experiences are episodes in a far wider story. While this dialogue will focus on the Middle East, the issues at its heart are global – and we need to ensure that the conclusions drawn and experiences shared are made available more widely.

The last report of the UN Secretary General to the Security Council provides a devastating, if heavily understated, overview of what is happening to children trapped in armed conflict. It describes the ‘abhorrent tactics of warfare’ targeting children for assault, sexual violence, abduction, and forced recruitment, and treating schools and health facilities as legitimate targets.

The failure to protect children goes beyond targeted attacks. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have seen civilian areas subjected to indiscriminate bombardment by high-explosive ordinances, targeted aerial strikes against infrastructure, and the use of IEDs. Children trapped in eastern Aleppo, Idlib, or eastern Ghouta in Syria, and Mosul, Raqqa or Ramadi in Iraq have experienced forms of warfare reminiscent of the conflict in Chechnya.

We know from research conducted by the Centre for Blast Injury Studies – and I’m very glad that we have Dr Emily Mayhew here today – that children face elevated risks of death and injury in these attacks because of their physical vulnerability. Thanks to the work of many people in this room we are also increasingly aware of the psychological and emotional damage inflicted on children traumatised by exposure to violence.

The two reports produced by my Save the Children colleague Dr Marcia Brophy on the impact of conflict on Syria’s children – An unbearable truth and Invisible wounds – powerfully capture the scale, intensity and longevity of traumatic effects.

In the case of Syria, at least 3 million children under the age of six have known nothing but war. Of the children interviewed by Dr Brophy and her team, almost half had developed speech impediments. A similar proportion reported feelings of grief and extreme sadness, with adverse psychological impacts resulting from a loss of education. This is a country with a silent epidemic of toxic stress – a state which has the potential to produce life-long and irreversible consequences for emotional development and mental health in adulthood, as well as physical ailments linked to diabetes and heart disorders.

The consequences of failure to mitigate these effects are beyond estimation – and I’m not just talking about the direct impact on individual lives. Traumatised children and adolescents provide a potential recruiting option for extremist organisations offering them a chance to exact ‘revenge’, or the false promise of an identity that will address their very real sense of vulnerability.

It strikes me that education has a distinctive role to play in supporting children traumatised by violence – but it cannot be ‘education as usual’. A few years ago I had an opportunity to spend some time in the Bekka Valley area of Lebanon interviewing Syrian refugee children, many of them from Ghouta. I was there to develop a plan aimed at getting these children into education. Looking back, I now recognise that we failed to address what, for many of these children, was perhaps the biggest single challenge in returning to education – their desperate need for help in coping with trauma.

There are currently 3.5 million refugee children out of school. This in itself is a risk factor for extremism. As Gordon Brown, the UN’s Special Envoy for Education, has argued, take away the hope that comes with education and you are left with a child at risk of recruitment by extremists.

Education offers a return to some sort of normality and safety. It can enable refugee children a chance to develop the skills they – and their host or home countries – need to build a better future. But putting a traumatised child into a classroom without the care, counselling and support they need is not a prescription for learning and emotional recovery.

Let’s be honest, we have failed to recognise the scale of the trauma challenge to be addressed in education responses. Looking ahead, Save the Children is unequivocally committed to working with all of you in addressing the challenges ahead. We need to make schools and classrooms part of the delivery infrastructure for providing mental health and psychosocial support – and I hope to work closely with my colleagues in DFID to address this issue.

Next year Save the Children marks our Centenary. Our organisation was created to respond to the needs of children affected by war – specifically, by the humanitarian blockade imposed by the UK on aid for children in Germany and Austria. And we’ll be marking the Centenary by putting the protection of children in armed conflict at the heart of our agenda.

Part of our efforts will be directed towards the restoration of fundamental rights. The time has come to challenge the culture of impunity surrounding those who see protecting children from armed conflict not as a moral imperative backed by human rights law, but as an irrelevance. Holding those responsible for war crimes and other acts of violence against children accountable for their actions is a vital step towards protection.

We are also working to restore or strengthen the normative foundations for the protection of children in conflict. Ending the use of cluster munitions, banning recourse to high explosive ordinances in high population-density urban areas, and prohibiting the use of IEDs would help to lower the toll of physical and emotional trauma experienced by children.

But we must also respond to the harsh reality that hundreds of thousands of children need our help and support. That’s why we will establish a child-centred MHPSS centre, providing a forum for research and the development of practical responses. We are also in the process of developing a MHPSS Diploma Programme to be offered in universities in the Middle East, in collaboration with the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Let me end by wishing you well for the intensive dialogue ahead. It is impossible to overstate the importance not just of this event, but of the partnerships Wilton Park is developing. It is only through these partnerships that we can hope to make a difference for children who deserve our very best effort.

Thank you.

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