Intermittently, images spring from the news to shock us with the suffering of children brutalized by war or their families' desperate flight as refugees. Three years ago, the body of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy drowned on a Turkish beach, administered that shock. Central American children uprooted by the violence of Honduras or El Salvador now underscore the same message—that amid the world's people scarred by war and violence, a special danger is children. Among the 65 million people torn from their homes, most by warfare, roughly half are children. Many in conflict zones are sickeningly brutalized—enslaved, raped, forced to kill. As many as 1.7 billion children, three out of four on the planet, endure interpersonal violence, from assault to rape to corporal punishment.

Child soldiers released in South Sudan.  Photo: UNMISS / Isaac Billy
Child soldiers released in South Sudan. Photo: UNMISS / Isaac Billy

These numbers are shocking not only for their scale, but for their novelty. Only now are governments and international organizations beginning to measure the extent of global abuse and neglect of children. So only now can we see the looming specter it raises: the massive portion of our global youth vulnerable to replicating in adulthood the violence they have suffered.

Unless governments and leaders fundamentally re-shape our policies to help children, the world will reap a terrible harvest of greater violence in the coming generation. The U.N. Security Council this week took a step in the direction we need, urging governments to rehabilitate, rather than detain and prosecute, children who are recruited as soldiers in conflicts

Seeing 'Small People'

People in Northern Ireland, still recovering from the 30-year communal conflict they call "The Troubles," speak about "small people" and "tall people"—saying that both deserve respect. They are talking about children and adults.

This framing captures what we need in international policies toward children. Until we see children as fully formed (if immature) human beings, we will continue to subject them to the abuses of the powerful—corporal punishment, enslavement, trafficking and brutalization by armed actors and violent extremists. It is no wonder that the world is caught in a never-ending cycle of violence. The small people, victimized by the tall people, repeat the abusive patterns they have learned as they mature.

"Children in danger are indeed dangerous children," notes Djibouti's Ambassador Mohamed Siad Doualeh. Yet the world has what it takes to repair broken lives of abused children and reduce the dangers they pose to the world.

Schooling is Vital

Syria—the land whose war uprooted the young Alan Kurdi—is the unavoidable example. Five years of war have driven half of its children from their homes and schools. A growing crisis is Central America. Hundreds of thousands have fled the violence—of rampant criminal gangs, drug and other trafficking—of the region's "northern triangle" (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). Displacement there has exploded into a 16-fold increase in six years, including many children.

Amid our world's displaced millions, the largest such population ever, only 61 percent of refugee children attended any kind of school in 2016. Less than 1 percent of refugee youth reached a university. This is a critical failing, for education is the first, most effective preventer of abuse.

Refugee children who receive schooling are significantly less likely to be radicalized, forced into child marriage, or otherwise exploited. Only education offers a new generation the critical thinking skills that can allow them to resist extremists' propaganda and recruitment. Thus, even for wealthier, more secure populations in American and Europe, the education of refugee children is a long-term protection for their own security and for international stability.

Basic education is not rocket science. Governments and nongovernment organizations should commit greater resources to education within refugee populations.

Sex as a Weapon

Whether in Syria, Iraq or Nigeria, extremists use girls as a strategic commodity to recruit boys or men with promises of virgin wives and sex slaves. ISIS and Boko Haram have kidnapped, enslaved, bought and sold girls as property to compensate those groups' fighters.

This kind of trauma inflicts permanent scars, yet such girls and women have shown the strength to heal when offered some safety and help. In the Pakistani province of Punjab, the government has created "one-stop shops"—centers run by women to help victims of sexual and gender-based violence through rehabilitation and recovery. This kind of help is needed for uprooted populations, in and out of refugee camps, worldwide.

To help prevent children from becoming dangerous adults, we must develop, fund and implement the best trauma counseling and healing assistance possible for all victims of sexual violence. This means humanitarian services and protections for boys and girls in every kind of war and every refugee population.

It also means opposing the particular abuses of those who turn children into weapons of war. A recent U.N. report found that 57 armed groups and nine governmental armed forces last year recruited an estimated 8,000 children worldwide as fighters.

Trained to Kill

ISIS and other violent extremist groups have used small people to commit suicide attacks, execute prisoners, and spy on families and neighborhoods.

Under ISIS rule in Iraq and Syria, boys as young as six were groomed and recruited as "lion cubs of the Caliphate." Lured with bribes of toys or candy, they were shunted from schools or orphanages to training camps where they learned first to behead dolls, and then to execute human hostages.

For adolescent boys, extremists promise a violent short-cut to adulthood, giving them a fighter's job, gun and a child bride.

Taliban factions in Pakistan have committed similar abuses. The U.S. Institute of Peace sponsors a program in Pakistan's Swat Valley that gradually deradicalizes these youth at a rehabilitation center and reintegrates them into their families, communities and productive lives. This is the kind of intervention that we need to support small people during times of war.

We need to figure out a way to develop age-sensitive "exit ramps" for children and youth who have been entangled in the web of violent extremists' control and brainwashing. We cannot simply jail them, especially with adults, a choice that often provides their next course in radicalization.

Charles Dickens' Prophetic Vision

Our global violence, uprooted populations and extremist contagions arise amid our tectonic social changes of globalization, instant digital communications, and chasms of wealth and poverty. Two hundred years ago, Charles Dickens observed his society amid a similar chapter of upheaval—the Industrial Revolution.

Dickens saw the truth that we now miss: neglected or abused children pose a special danger to our society and thus merit our special attention. Dickens forced that attention upon his readers in Victorian England through the fictional-but-real stories of the orphaned Oliver Twist, the crippled Tiny Tim, and the doomed Little Nell.

We need to see and hear the modern equivalent of Dickens' stories, and their demand that we rethink our complacency.

A generation of women's movements has forced basic rights and equal treatment for women into the policies of governments, organizations and the United Nations. In the same way, we must move the global community to confront the abuse and neglect of children. Without urgent interventions, we will continue to stitch the violent experiences of today's "small people"—the largest such population in human history—into the DNA of our next generation.

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