Children in Ukrainian cities need an end to this war – their futures hang in the balance

The attacks on Ukranian children and their families as they flee attacks on them in war-ravaged cities ‘must stop’, and international law respected to ensure the rights of children are upheld.

Those were the stark words of UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi, addressing the UN Security Council Meeting on the maintenance of peace and security in Ukraine.

Speaking in New York, he also spoke of the importance of the council’s adoption last year of Resolution 2601, which condemns attacks on schools and upholds the right the education.

: “It has been just one month since UNICEF last briefed this Council on the situation in Ukraine – as each day passes, more Ukrainian children are exposed to the horrors of this war. In just this past month, the UN verified that nearly 100 children were killed, and we believe the actual figures to be considerably higher.

More children have been injured and faced grave violations of their rights, millions more have been displaced. Schools continue to be attacked and used for military purposes and water and sanitation infrastructure impacted. The war in Ukraine, like all wars, is a child protection and child rights crisis.

Today, even more families are mourning the loss of loved ones.

“It is also a stark reminder that in Ukraine today, education is also under attack. In February, the school year came to a standstill when the war broke out. As of last week, at least 15 of 89 – one in six – UNICEF-supported schools in eastern Ukraine had been damaged or destroyed since the start of the war. Hundreds of schools across the country are reported to have been hit by heavy artillery, airstrikes and other explosive weapons in populated areas, whilst other schools are being used as information centres, shelters, supply hubs, or for military purposes – with long term impact on children’s return to education.

These attacks must stop. All parties must honour their legal and moral obligation to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, and to ensure the rights of children are upheld.

“In 2021, this council adopted Resolution 2601, which condemns attacks on schools and calls for all necessary safeguards to uphold the right to education. The Safe Schools Declaration outlines what is needed to enhance protection of education in conflict. What is needed now is the courage, discipline, and political will to translate these words into action.

‘Schools are a safe space, providing protection from harm’

“Excellencies, schools are a lifeline for children, especially in conflict.  Schools are a safe space, with routines providing protection from harm and a semblance of normalcy. Schools are also critical conduits for information about the risks of deadly explosive ordnance – and they are a connector to essential health and psychosocial services

“The workforce in Ukraine – teachers, principals, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals – are equally impacted by this conflict. Supporting them so they can stay and deliver is more important than ever.

“We must also ensure creative, multi-faceted, and flexible solutions that combine low and high-tech methods to reach all children and minimize disruptions to their learning. In mid-March, over 15,000 schools resumed education in Ukraine, mostly through remote learning or in-person hybrid options. The Ministry of Education and Science, supported by UNICEF and partners, is doing everything possible to reach Ukrainian children, including supporting online education from Kindergarten through grade 11.

‘Remote learning can only be a temporary solution’

We are also supporting an ongoing digital campaign on explosive ordnance risk education, and provision of education-related supplies. However, remote learning can only be a temporary solution. Lessons from the pandemic show the importance of children learning in a school setting with their peers and teachers.

“In the broader region, thanks to the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive, governments and municipalities in neighbouring countries are enrolling children in national school systems and alternative education pathways.  This is helping ensure the continuity of children’s learning and supporting their completion of the school year. It is estimated that 3.7 million children in Ukraine and abroad are using online and distance learning options. But enormous obstacles remain, including capacity and resource constraints, language barriers, and unpredictable movements of children and their families.

“We must make every effort to reach those most at risk of being left behind. For the youngest learners, access to education can be especially challenging: less than 5 per cent of refugee preschool-aged children are estimated to be enrolled in public kindergarten. Children with disabilities need access to inclusive services and assistive technology, as well as targeted programmes to cover their specific needs, including rehabilitation.

In the last month, we have seen small moments of relief as children and other civilians evacuated from Mariupol and other frontline locations reach relative safety

Humanitarians have reached millions of people in need across the country with health, education, water, and essential supplies as well as information, counselling, and psychosocial support.

“Yet we know that the situation for children and their families in conflict-affected areas without access to humanitarian assistance continues to be grim. Children and parents tell us of their ‘living hell’ where they were forced to go hungry, drink from muddy puddles, and shelter from constant shelling and bombardments, dodging bombs, bullets, and landmines as they fled.

“The war in Ukraine has also had a devastating impact on the most vulnerable children globally as world food and fuel prices spike to all-time highs. Children already affected by conflict and climate crises across the world – from Afghanistan to Yemen and the Horn of Africa – are now paying a deadly price for another war far from their doorsteps. The repercussions of the war in Ukraine will continue to ripple across the globe.

‘Ukranian children tell us they want reuniting with their families’

“Excellencies, Ukrainian children have been uprooted from their homes, separated from caregivers, and directly exposed to war. Their schools have been destroyed and the critical infrastructure essential for their survival and well-being, including hospitals and water and sanitation systems, are being devastated by the fighting.

“Ukrainian children tell us that they want to reunite with their families, to return to their communities, to go to school and play in their neighbourhoods. Children are resilient but they shouldn’t have to be. They have already paid an unconscionably high price in this war. We must do everything possible to help ensure it doesn’t also cost them their futures.

“Once again, as humanitarians, we will do everything we can to continue meeting the needs of children affected by this war – to provide safety, stability and protection, but this will never be enough.

“Ultimately, children need an end to this war – their futures hang in the balance.”

Speech text courtesy of UNICEF

Author: Simon Weedy

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