WASHINGTON, D.C.- According to 2009 estimates, 1 billion children were then living in conflict zones or areas emerging from war. Over 50 percent of civilian casualties in war are children. A ground breaking report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) written by Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela’s former wife, states that in the 1990s 2 million children were killed in armed conflict and 6 million were injured.
A 2012 document written by the U.K. humanitarian organization War Child reported that the civil war in Syria had resulted in children and adolescents being massacred, illegally detained, sexually abused and forced into combat.
Approximately half of those killed in Syria have been children. In addition to those killed and forced into combat over 1 million children and youth have become refugees seeking shelter in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
Over the past decade 18 million children have been raised in war and conflict.
Growing up in a war torn country and experiencing violence first hand, watching loved ones be killed or even, just being displaced from your home can cause significant trauma to a child. The American Psychological Association defines psychological trauma as an emotional response to a horrific event such as physical or sexual abuse, a car accident, a natural disaster or war.
The Effects of Trauma
Trauma has lifelong psychological and physical effects, especially when it occurs in childhood. The effects of trauma can be acute, chronic or cumulative. Research shows that childhood trauma greatly increased the risks of PTSD, substance abuse, homelessness and mental health problems later in life. Trauma also can cause physical health problems such as sleep disorders, cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal problems, sexual dysfunction and changes in the central nervous system.
People who have experienced trauma may react in one of three ways:
1. Intrusion – They may experience recurrent, intrusive thoughts and recollections or have flashbacks and nightmares.
2. Constriction – They made avoid their feelings and thoughts. This includes feeling numb or dissociating, observing one’s surroundings as though they were watching them from outside of their body. People may also have feelings of detachment or estrangement.
3. Hyperarousal – Many people will not feel safe for a long time after the traumatic event(s). They may experience anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Trauma has a deep and life altering impact on a person’s life and they way they see the world around them.
Some people who experience trauma go through life thinking that the whole world is a dangerous place. Following the Rwandan genocide, 60 percent of Rwandan children said that they did not care if they ever grew up. Sadly, people who have experienced trauma are at an increased risk of perpetrating violence. Because of this, violence may be spread across generations.
The humanitarian community focuses on needs that are concrete (e.g., food, water, emergency medical attention and shelter). It is important for countries and aid organizations to recognize the impact of trauma on individual’s mental and physical health and put in place programs and policies that can help children recover emotionally from war.
– Elizabeth Brown