LONDON -- Is it any wonder that we now call this "the year of fear" for millions of children across the world?
The cries of a starving or distressed child are a harrowing enough sound. The screams of a child caught up in violent conflict are an altogether different matter.
Girls and boys are increasingly being brutalized in clashes across the world, according to a shocking report released by the United Nations secretary-general on June 11. And now they have fewer places to run to -- fewer places to hide -- because the safe haven of a school is not as safe as it should be.
Between 2009 and 2013 almost 10,000 schools were attacked or shut down because of conflict.
In a new report on "Children and armed conflict" unveiled to UN General Assembly Security Council members, the latest figures make for grim reading. The list of actual atrocities is unspeakable. More than 50 armed groups have been named and shamed as having carried out grave attacks on children.
- Thousands of schools are still being attacked or used in war zones, rendering them no-go buildings for girls and boys.
- Mass abductions are becoming an increasing trend, as is the recruitment of child soldiers.
- The number of cases of extreme violence against girls and boys is rising rapidly.
It has been almost six months since the worst school attack in recent history -- the massacre of 132 pupils and their teachers at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. It has been almost 14 months since some 200 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria, maybe never to be seen again. But, despite worldwide revulsion, the atrocities against children have not ceased. If anything, the volume of attacks on education is increasing.
In Afghanistan, schools were attacked in 163 instances. A number of incidents involved the use of IEDS, and some schools were targeted because they were used as polling stations for elections. More than 400 schools remained closed here because girls are a primary focus of Taliban threats.
More than 31,000 children were impacted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by upwards of 20 school attacks. Twelve educational facilities were used for military purposes. Meanwhile, in Iraq, last year was the deadliest year in over six years. According to reports received by the United Nations, targeted killings, abductions, violence, forced recruitment and attacks on schools were commonplace in territories controlled by ISIS and affiliated armed groups.
The report, spanning 50 pages, also highlights the terrors of last summer in Gaza, which damaged at least 262 schools and 274 kindergartens. And in Somalia, the report documents nearly 1,900 violations against children, making every page sorry reading with every line screaming yet another reason why children are afraid.
Action is being taken. At an Oslo conference on creating safe schools two weeks ago, 37 countries signed the Safe Schools Declaration, which commits them to protect education from attack.
The countries which signed -- including Afghanistan and conflict-torn Nigeria -- have agreed to endorse and use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. The guidelines are intended to apply to both non-state and government armed forces.
The full list of signatories are: Afghanistan, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Czech Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Ecuador, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Montenegro, Mozambique, Nigeria, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay and Zambia.
Their pledge and their intent is commendable, but there are more than 37 countries in this world. There are, in fact, 197 countries.
In March, I told the United Nations that the international community had to act urgently, saying:
It is time for us to end the shameful breaches of international law that violate the rights of millions of children by calling a halt to the militarization of schools, stopping the now-growing abduction of school pupils as weapons of war and insisting -- even in conflict zones -- that properly resourced safe schools enable children to enjoy their education in peace.
When will the madness end? From Syria and Iraq to South Sudan and the Central African Republic, we have seen more displaced children and more child refugees than at any time since the Second World War 70 years ago. The number has risen this past year to a staggering 25 million, the number of children in exile now as big as a medium-sized state.
And this new report simply proves what we have been saying for months: that 2015 has become not the hoped-for "year of the child" but "the year of fear." Vulnerable youngsters -- whose right to be shielded from war is supposedly guaranteed in successive United Nations charters and resolutions -- have been systematically violated, exploited, injured, raped and killed.
The militarization of schools in Syria was followed by verified reports of child atrocities in Iraq and then of school bombings in Gaza. There are now an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world. One hundred thousand of them are girls, many of whom are being used as sex slaves.
The secretary-general concludes:
The facts as presented in the body of the present report speak for themselves and should shock our collective conscience. I am more convinced than ever that the United Nations and member states must continue to give the protection of children affected by armed conflict the highest priority. Their plight should be the primary reason not to start conflicts and the primary reason to end them.
After the bloodshed and incessant school attacks of 2014, I wanted 2015 to be a year of hope, of action and the realization of a promise made 15 years ago to boys and girls across the world: that they would all have a school to go to and they would be safe there, to learn and to have their chance in the world.
Instead, they are frightened. Our children are precious. Let's keep them safe.