I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of protecting children in conflict.
I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting me the opportunity to have this debate today, and to thank the Members from all parts of the House who supported my application for the debate. This is a great opportunity to hear the voices of those who are often not heard. Children whose lives are impacted by conflict are all too often voiceless. It is also appropriate that this debate should follow on from the conference in London that called for action to end sexual violence in conflict. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), and the whole Department on holding that conference. Indeed, the Minister and I attended an event hosted by War Child, and I hope he will say what progress he believes will be made on these children’s issues. This is not just about ending sexual violence against children; it is about preventing children from losing their childhood.
One reason I am passionately and energetically campaigning in Scotland for a no vote in the referendum on 18 September is that we are better placed as Scots to be a force for good in the world as part of the United Kingdom. The humanitarian global summit in 2016 provides a further opportunity for the nations of the UK to work together and show leadership, and I hope the Minister will say today that the UK will continue to take a leading role in protecting children in conflict.
We need not only to protect children, but to be more active in promoting children’s rights within their own countries and their awareness of those rights. We should not just be promoting the UN rights respecting programmes in our own schools in the UK; we should be doing so wherever we are helping to fund education across the globe. Children need to learn that they have rights and that other children different from them have rights, too. Teachers and parents will then learn these rights and perhaps future generations will do a better job than this one of protecting children in conflict.
Children and youths constitute more than 50% of the populations of conflict-affected countries. As of 2010, more than 1 billion children worldwide lived in countries or territories affected by armed conflict. Sadly, changes in the nature of conflict have had profound consequences for children, who are being denied the special protections due to them under international law. Child injuries and deaths were traditionally seen as the collateral damage of war, but children are increasingly being targeted directly. Those trends need to be met with a renewed focus on how children can be protected in situations of conflict, alongside heightened scrutiny of duty bearers who are failing to safeguard children’s rights.
As a member of the Select Committee on International Development, I have been incredibly privileged to have seen with my own eyes the impact conflict has on the lives of children. The Committee’s most recent visit was to the middle east, where we saw how UK aid is working to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. Since the Syrian conflict began, more than 2.3 million people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. In Lebanon, families are being settled in host communities. Although the vast majority of refugees in Jordan are in host communities, there are also large-scale camps, such as Camp Zaatari, which the Committee visited. The UK has pledged £600 million in aid and we can all be proud of that, but it cannot compare to the response from Lebanon and Jordan. It is almost impossible for us in the UK to imagine the scale of the challenges they face and the impact on their own country and people, be it on education, water security or employment.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that in situations such as that in Syria early enforced marriage is seen as a way of escape for young girls? Does she join me in welcoming the Department for International Development’s upcoming summit on ending female genital mutilation and early enforced marriage?
Absolutely. When we were in Camp Zaatari we heard about families who suddenly had no prospects—they do not know when they are going to return to Syria and they have no way to earn a livelihood—and we were told that if they have daughters the temptation is to marry them off early and, in order for those daughters to be as prized as possible, to consider awful, gruesome child abuse such as FGM. We also heard about an increased prevalence of domestic violence in those camps. That has an impact not only on the women, but on the children in those families. I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention.
Life for children can be very difficult in these situations, as many parents fled Syria with just the clothes on their back. At times, they live in horrific conditions, but even when the housing is of a satisfactory standard, children have needs, beyond the roof over their head, that are just not being met.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing this important debate. She describes a very terrible situation, but does she agree that it is wrong to incite to violence children in conflict situations? For example, a young boy who was speaking about a game being shown on Palestine TV in May said that Zion is Satan with a tail. Is it not terrible for someone to incite a young boy to make such a statement?
If my hon. Friend bears with me, she will find that I come on to that matter later. I am not usually someone who speaks from notes, but I will today as this is such a complex issue,
On the IDC visit, we met a family living in an unfinished block of flats. Speaking to three generations of the family—children, mother and grandmother—living in that small space, I asked what life was like for the children. I was told that they were not attending school. The mother never took them out into the town and they were not allowed to play outside as she was worried that someone would complain about the noise. With no one able to say when the conflict will end, it is clearly unacceptable for children to continue to live in such a way. The family had sanitation, water, energy and food, but for children to grow and develop into healthy adults and to reach their potential, they need so much more.
I cannot say with any authority that the children in the camps had better lives, but there is an advantage in that services of scale can be delivered more easily. We saw evidence of that, with the delivery of psychological, health and education services. None of those services is a luxury that can wait to be delivered at some later date.
The children who manage to register for school in the community face many barriers to learning, such as social isolation, language difficulties, and, for those who had already started school in Syria, the problems of adjusting to a different curriculum. For children to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to learn, it is essential that they receive therapeutic services. When they are so traumatised, how can they possibly be expected to learn? Some 28.5 million children are out of school in conflict and emergency-related areas. The humanitarian response does not accord the same priority to education or child protection as it does to water, shelter and food.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She will be aware of the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) on safety in schools, particularly in Nigeria. Does she agree that that is a huge step forward, although, at the moment, the school girls are still missing? That initiative will allow other parents in the same state to send their children to school.
Absolutely. Just last night I attended a meeting in the House in which the Finance Minister of Nigeria talked about the campaign to build safer schools. As a fellow Scot, my hon. Friend will remember the awful tragedy of the shooting in Dunblane and the action we had to take to make our children safe in school. Children in Nigeria, and girls attending school, deserve the same protection. Such is the power of education that many people see it as threat.
I return to the hon. Lady’s important point about counselling. Does she recall the Committee’s visit to a centre in Jordan where we met some children who had recently come from Syria? The first things that they drew were AK47s and other terrible things to do with war. Now they are drawing pictures of homes and gardens and other things connected to a much more peaceful way of life.
I thank the hon. Gentleman both for his intervention and for his comradeship—if he does not mind that term—during that visit to the middle east. He will also recall a visit where we saw children miming the experience of being refugees—how they were turned away from one country and then another before they were given refuge in Lebanon and Jordan, and just how moving that was. We also had a game on a 3G pitch. MPs, who are always competitive, managed to beat the refugee children 2-0. It was good to see the facility being used.
Analysis of the 2013 UN appeal tracking data shows that less than 2% of UN humanitarian appeal funds went to education and that only 40% of requests for funding for education were met. A coalition comprising non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and others under the banner of the “Education Cannot Wait” campaign is calling for education funding to be at least 4%, and I hope that DFID Ministers will support that campaign. Perhaps the Minister will give us an indication today of what he thinks about that.
I am pleased to see colleagues in the Chamber who have a record of defending children’s rights. I am sure that they will focus on individual countries, but I want to ensure that the debate today does not pass without our speaking up for the children of the Central African Republic The UN has reported “unprecedented” levels of brutality against children in the Central African Republic, including mutilation and beheading. Save the Children says that it is not aware of plans to deploy child protection experts on the new UN mission in the CAR, even though there is clear evidence of large-scale recruitment of children to armed groups and of other grave violations, including sexual violence.
The UK could and should be leading on such action by deploying its own experts on the mission or by insisting on pre-deployment training covering things such as how to work with children who have been recruited to armed groups. It should also be championing funding for child protection and education in the CAR. Will the Minister tell us what is being done as part of the preventing sexual violence initiative to ensure that there are experts in child protection in every team and that all staff have some training in child protection issues? Schools need to be safe places in which children can learn.
There is a rapidly growing international consensus in support of the Lucens guidelines, but so far the UK Government have yet to endorse them. By restricting the use of schools by armies in times of conflict, states can directly and substantially reduce the prevalence of violation of girls and boys in wars, and can facilitate the reintegration of survivors into their communities. Earlier this month, the Norwegian Government officially announced that they will lead in promoting the guidelines. Will the Minister commit the UK—and call for other states to do so—to adopting the Lucens guidelines on the military use of schools, amend the military codes of conduct and issue a clear and unambiguous prohibition of attacks on and military use of schools?
A 45% increase in the number of child casualties from explosive weapons use was recorded from 2011 to 2012. In November 2013, a report entitled “Stolen Futures”, which was released by the Oxford Research Group, identified explosive weapons as the primary cause of child casualties in Syria. It showed that of 12,000 then-recorded casualties, more than 70% of children died as a result of explosive weapons, illustrating the devastating impact that such use has on children.
The use of explosive weapons may not result in the killing or injuring of children, but its effects on their everyday lives are incredibly damaging. Such weapons may cause debilitating injury, displacement or long-term psychological scars and block life-saving humanitarian aid. It is time that states, including the UK, publicly recognised the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and championed moves toward an intergovernmental political declaration against such practice. Norway is providing leadership, and hosted a meeting last month to build consensus. I am not sure whether the UK was present, but will the Minister today commit the UK to being part of a global campaign to protect the innocent victims of war?
This debate is about not just children’s rights but the hope of a safer, more peaceful world for us and future generations. Children are exposed to high levels of violence in conflict, which can significantly impact on their beliefs, behaviours, future opportunities and aspirations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) said, beliefs, practices and habits that foster violence easily become deeply embedded and can fuel repeated conflict unless addressed. Every civil war since 2003 was a resumption of a previous civil war, and the majority of conflicts re-emerge within 10 years of a ceasefire.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes victims of children on both sides. The Leader of the Opposition was right to highlight the tragedy of Israeli children learning in schools which have to be able to survive rockets attacks from Gaza. What kind of environment is that for children to learn?
I would be grateful if the Minister commented on last year’s UNICEF report which stated that the ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system was widespread, systematic and institutionalised. What discussions has his Department had with the Israeli Government and, given the recent loss of young Israeli and Palestinian lives, how is his Department working with the Department for International Development and NGOs to protect children, particularly in Gaza?
I have constituents who have spent time working in the west bank, ensuring that Palestinian children can walk safely to school. Sadly, the people from whom they need to protect the children are all too often other children. Israeli settler children are taught terms of abuse and encouraged to throw stones. That is a tragedy and an abuse not just of the Palestinian children but of the Israeli children. They are all victims. That is why I tabled an early-day motion and wrote to the Foreign Secretary asking him to reintroduce funding for Breaking the Silence so that ordinary Israelis can hear credible voices telling them what is being done in their name. Children’s involvement in violence goes far beyond that kind of activity, however.
I take the point my hon. Friend makes very seriously; when wrongdoing occurs it must be put right. Does she agree with me that there is a consistent and relentless campaign of incitement to violence on the Palestinian media almost daily, which inevitably has an impact on young children who then start to commit acts of violence?
My hon. Friend is right, and I saw that when I visited the area. As a mother, I thought how difficult it would be to raise children and try to prevent them from indulging in acts of violence while at the same time making them aware of their rights and encouraging them to challenge injustice. I welcome her contribution.
For children who have been involved with armed forces and groups, rehabilitation and reintegration tailored to their specific needs is essential. World Vision identifies the need for programmes targeting girls who have given birth during the conflict and their children. When children leave armed groups, reintegration cannot be seen as a short-term process to be completed in a few months. World Vision’s experience has shown that reintegration takes much longer and needs to be part of both peace-building and development work. It must be funded accordingly. We know that children’s involvement in violence goes beyond the kind of activity seen in the west bank. It is estimated that a quarter of a million children are active in armed groups. Work to try to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers must focus on stopping armed forces and groups recruiting and using children and on strengthening the systems that protect children, making them less vulnerable to recruitment.
As I draw my remarks to a close, I ask the Minister to support the recommendations from Save the Children, which could save the lives and outcomes of children in conflict. We need to mainstream child protection in conflict, ensuring that there are sufficient resources. Only 36% and 28% of appeal requests for child protection and education respectively are met in emergency responses. That is simply not good enough. The UN and regional peacekeeping missions must include adequate capacity to prevent and respond to the violation of children’s rights, including mandatory pre-deployment training. Governments and partners must provide co-ordinated assistance to children who are unaccompanied or separated as a result of armed conflict. Violations of children’s rights must be monitored and recorded and all reasonable steps must be taken to hold perpetrators to account.
Finally, I want to pay tribute today to the many NGOs who work in the most difficult and dangerous conflict zones, sometimes giving their lives to deliver life-saving aid to children. When we see the worst of humanity, they show us the very best.
The whole House will be grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) for initiating this debate on protecting children in conflict. She was right to deal with the Palestinian situation, but I will not follow her example in any detail as I do not want to get involved in the debate about the rights and wrongs of the Palestinian issue, except for noting the suffering of both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people in a very difficult conflict.
I want to make some general remarks about how the British Government could try to improve the protection of children in conflict areas, particularly when it comes to education. Education is the subject on which I want to focus and I would be grateful if the Minister could deal with that problem when he replies.
I should perhaps declare a family interest. I am speaking today because both my elder daughters work for charities in Africa and have worked in Kenya, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. They keep me informed of their work and what is going on and, a few years ago, I visited the Congo with War Child to look at the appalling privations that children faced, particularly because of the conflict and the use of child soldiers. My visit had a deep impact on me and I am sure that, even despite all the excellent work of my hon. Friend the Minister and other Ministers in the FCO and DFID, there is still more that we can do.
As I say, I want to concentrate on education, but why are children particularly vulnerable? It is an obvious point, but they are vulnerable because they are young. When a three-year-old loses their parents in a bomb attack, it is virtually impossible for them to survive alone. If a 25-year-old loses a parent, it is a tragedy, but they can survive. It is right that the House should focus particularly on the appalling impact of conflict on children, which is much greater than its impact on mature people.
Of course, children suffer appalling and severe trauma from witnessing events. They do not have the life experience or emotional maturity to integrate a particular scene into the rest of their life. We have been brought up in a very comfortable environment, but we all know how even quite small events from our childhood can have a traumatic effect later on. Imagine a child in a conflict situation witnessing their mother being raped or their brother being dragged off as a child soldier or witnessing murders or the appalling scenes that have happened in Syria. That trauma will live with those children for ever.
Children are targeted in conflict situations for sexual attacks. Girls and boys make up more than half the rape cases in such conflicts and that is an appalling statistic. Imagine the appalling emotional trauma of that. Children are also targeted by military groups that are keen to expand their ranks quickly and we have seen that in particular over the years in Congo. As I know from my visit to the Congo and as we all know, it is appalling to talk to former child soldiers who have been dragged into these events. They have committed terrible things and terrible things have happened to them, sometimes when they are just 13 or 14-years-old.
War destroys livelihoods, and children are often seen as a way for distressed families to get income. Girls can be married early for a price or used as sex workers and boys can be sent out to work in fields and factories or to collect rubbish from the streets. I occasionally visit the middle east, and we see the desperate struggle for survival, particularly for Syrian refugees in Lebanon or Jordan when there is no social security available to any significant extent. In conflict situations, families are desperate to survive, and we all know that children have to be used as part of that.
The point I want to stress and focus on for the rest of my speech is that it is children and not adults who lose their opportunity for education. Once that opportunity is lost, it is lost for ever and can never be repeated. Education is essential for children and particularly for children in conflict areas. It is a life chance that comes only once and a reasonable level of education is even more important for children who will be expected to build a peaceful recovery from conflict. Education keeps children safe. Obviously, if a child is in a school or in an educational environment, it is less likely that they will be married early, raped, abducted or recruited by armed groups. All that is much more unlikely when schools are open.
Actually, education is prioritised by families in conflict areas. We have seen on television, such as during the Iraq conflicts, and from our own experience how families that are often desperate and have nothing—owning nothing, surviving on nothing—still make the effort to dress their children in immaculate uniforms to walk through bombed-out streets to get school. Education is extraordinarily important for them.
My hon. Friend makes a compelling case based on his experiences in Africa. It is deeply humbling when we go to developing countries in parts of Africa and elsewhere and see children who have walked miles and miles and miles to attend a classroom where they have no seats, but may have rocks to sit on, if they are lucky, and which have corrugated iron roofs. Their parents have made a contribution out of what limited resources they have, because they absolutely value education as the way out of poverty and conflict. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is deeply humbling for those of us here who take education for granted?
My hon. Friend has made that point very movingly. We live in such a comfortable environment here where education is, frankly, of a fantastically high standard and is free—paid for by the taxpayer—that we simply do not appreciate the appalling sacrifices made in places where education is not free by parents who have nothing. They make that huge effort to try to educate their children, because they know, as we know, that education is everything.
We can establish a case that education is absolutely vital, therefore, in terms of taking children out of conflict situations and giving them life chances. So, having made that case, we would expect it to be prioritised by humanitarian agencies and Governments, but analysis of the 2013 United Nations appeal tracking data shows that only 1.9% of UN humanitarian appeal funds went to education. That seems to me to be very low, and I was surprised when I saw that. I cannot believe that the figure is so low, but that is what I have been told. Donors simply did not prioritise that part of the UN appeals.
That is a very good point and I hope the Minister has made a note of it, and perhaps will reply to it.
UN-funded education projects, largely delivered through non-governmental organisations, only reach 3.5 million of the children who were targeted for education in emergencies in 2013, and development donors do not get involved in education in emergencies even though they prioritise the education of children in other places. When a humanitarian agency arrives in an appalling situation where people are dying, starving and so forth, and it has to feed them and make sure they are sheltered, I can quite understand the mindset leading it not immediately to prioritise education. However, we must recognise—my daughter made this point to me—that these are often not the sorts of the intensely violent conflicts that we have witnessed in Europe and that last for three or four years; they are often low-level conflicts that can go on for many years and therefore children can be kept out of school for many years, because education is not seen as a priority.
Education falls between the two major funding streams, therefore, with the result that of the 58 million primary-age children not in school, 28.5 million are in conflict countries. Pretty soon the only children not in school in the world will be those living in conflict countries, not because they are hard to reach—mostly, they are easy to reach—but because the funding system has bypassed them almost entirely. That is a serious point for us and this House.
What needs to happen? First, humanitarian donors need to develop policies for education in emergencies that make education a central part of the first response phase, so when they go in, education is at the forefront of their minds. Secondly, the development side of Government donor offices need to stretch their understanding of education to include providing primary education in emergency settings—primary education is absolutely vital—and to do this in a way that builds, develops and protects the local education infrastructure. This has to be a prominent and early part of their investment. Thirdly, total funding for education within humanitarian responses needs to reach at least 4% of total humanitarian funding in emergencies. That figure was given to me by War Child and it seems a fair one. This is the target supported by the Education Cannot Wait campaign, which is backed by the Global Education Cluster and the International Network for Education in Emergencies, so presumably it is a well-researched figure and it makes sense. Fourthly, there is a need to conduct an urgent review of the amount of humanitarian aid DFID allocates to education and child protection; the Minister can no doubt defend the Government’s position. Inclusion of this point in party manifestos would demonstrate a strong commitment to meeting the needs of children affected by conflict.
As chairman of my party’s Back-Bench committee on DFID and foreign affairs, I am involved in helping to write the manifesto. I do not know how much notice the Foreign Secretary will take of my comments, but I will do my best. The Minister might take back to the Foreign Secretary the suggestion to include a phrase or sentence about education in our party manifesto, and perhaps the Labour party will consider doing the same thing, because manifestos are very important. Once it is there in writing in the manifesto, when whoever wins the next election comes to frame their humanitarian responses, education will be at the forefront of their minds. Also, Members of Parliament need to talk about these things and to raise them up the political agenda, which is why this debate is important.
Before I sit down, perhaps I can give testimony from a family from Irbil in Iraq, which I have visited. This family testimony was given to me by War Child. It was of interest to me because I have been to northern Iraq, not with War Child but with another charity, and the situation there is appalling. It was terrible to hear what people had to say. There was a mother. She and her family had been living in Baghdad, and her husband and son went to church and were never seen again. They just vanished—kidnapped, and obviously murdered. There was mother after mother like that. The situation in northern Iraq is, dare I say it, even more terrible than what is going on in Palestine, so may I give a tiny mention for a part of the population there with whom I have worked? In the conflict in northern Iraq there is no doubt that the Christian communities around Mosul— I have visited their villages—are in an extraordinarily stressed situation now. They are being driven from their villages by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and what is happening to the children does not bear thinking about.
So let me read out this family testimony from Irbil in Iraq, because it is important for me to put it on the record as it is personal experience, which is always more interesting than general comments:
“War Child met with a mother of two young boys aged nine and twelve who had suffered displacement three times as a result of the recent violence and ended up having to smuggle themselves into a place of safety. Their reason for leaving their home town was the mother’s fear of her sons being recruited to fight in the violence. The devastated 12-year-old told War Child, ‘I just want to be in school’. He has been forced to leave his education during his exams which will mean all previous years of schooling will count as a ‘fail’ within the system. He is unable to go to school as an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) because when the family fled they had to leave all belongings, including the necessary certification, at home.”
The report continues:
“They are sharing rented accommodation with another three families and will run out of money at the end of the month. ‘We have nowhere to go’, the mother told us. ‘When our money runs out we will have no choice but to sleep in the public park.’ There are many families already sleeping in the rough and engaging in casual labour or begging for survival. ‘We are so frustrated and so humiliated. I used to work and have a normal life and now I have no idea what will happen to us,’ the mother said.
Let me sum up the arguments. To me, the education part of this debate is one of the most interesting and the most important. Sadly, humanitarian actors still often do not prioritise education programming at the start of an emergency. I accept, as I said, all the problems that they face, but education must be at the forefront of their minds. This is still considered something to pick up six months into or after a conflict. Instead, there is no reason why children cannot continue in school if authorities or humanitarian actors have the right support. Surely we can all agree that children have a right to education throughout their childhood. Schools can keep children safe and they are important environments for being able to provide other services such as social care to address trauma.
In the Central African Republic where an appalling conflict is going on, most of the schools in the capital are not open. This is largely due to the collapsed Government’s inability to continue paying teachers’ salaries, and the humanitarian NGOs that are providing most of the services in the city cannot access enough funding for education in particular, so reopening schools is not the priority. As a result, in the capital city large numbers of children are not in school. It is not just a question of funding. Unfortunately, the reality is that aside from conflict, the quality of education on offer in these countries is incredibly low. We need to ensure that once in school, children actually learn. Levels of violence are also shockingly high, with corporal punishment widely used. Organisations such as War Child and Save the Children are trying to address all these issues. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, on behalf of the Government, will try to help them. Schools need to be safe spaces, with zero tolerance being shown if they are attacked or used by armed groups.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell), and I am sure we can continue to highlight these issues and ensure that in these desperate situations our children all over the world get a decent education.
I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) and the Backbench Business Committee on allocating time for such an important and timely subject for debate.
I want to cover some areas of interest relating to the protection of children in the conflict in Palestine and Israel, child prisoners and the situation of children in Gaza. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response. Clearly, the events of the past few weeks have once again brought to our attention in this House and throughout the world the enduring suffering of children as a result of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I draw to the attention of the House my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I would like to express my heartfelt and sincere sympathy to the families of the three Israeli youths abducted and killed in cold blood. My youngest son is of a similar age and I cannot begin to comprehend the grief that their parents must be experiencing at this time. There is no greater tragedy than that of a young and innocent life full of potential being taken away by conflict. In response to an urgent question earlier this week, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson) said something that I found poignant. He commented that there is no “hierarchy of victimhood” and that the deaths of innocent Palestinian children are equally tragic. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
For Palestinians, this week’s kidnapping and murder of a 16-year-old boy in a suspected revenge attack and the two innocent teenagers shot dead by Israeli soldiers at Ofer in May this year are just as painful and just as tragic to the Palestinian communities as the deaths of the Israeli youths are for Israel. Since 2001, 1,407 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli military forces and Israeli settlers as a consequence of an unjust and illegal military occupation. Worryingly, according to the United Nations, the instances of Israeli soldiers using live fire against the Palestinian civilian population in recent weeks have increased. I place on record my condolences to all the families who have lost children in this conflict, and I emphasise my desire to see those responsible brought to justice under the rule of law.
It is my wish that no more families on either side should have to suffer such tragedies in the future. I know that that wish is shared by right hon. and hon. Members, some of whom are here today, who have participated in other debates and spoken knowledgeably about their experiences, bringing their insight and knowledge of international law and treaties. Right hon. and hon. Members who share this sentiment recognise that the conflict will continue, and children will continue to be harmed and killed until a fair and just settlement is achieved. Until international law, United Nations resolutions and international conventions for peace are implemented in the middle east, parents of the region will continue to worry for their children’s safety and young people will continue to suffer and die as a result of a conflict that is not of their making.
There is a danger that the current climate of vengeance and retribution will worsen the situation. Uri Ariel, the Israeli housing Minister, has called for a “proper Zionist response”, meaning an acceleration of Israel’s illegal expansion of settlements in the west bank and East Jerusalem and a programme of punitive house demolitions. The Israeli Deputy Minister of Defence, Danny Danon, said that Israel should make the entire Palestinian leadership pay a heavy price for the killing of the three Israeli teenagers, and Mr Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, advocated a full-scale invasion of Gaza as a legitimate response. In the name of security, rights, justice and peace, the demands of these politicians must be rebutted, resisted and challenged by the international community.
Children are never the causes of conflict, but too often they are its victims, and if the cycle of revenge and violence is accelerated, they will pay the heaviest price. I was interested in the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), in which she pointed out the radicalisation of Palestinian youth as a consequence of broadcasts in the Palestinian media. We should also think about the consequences of their day-to-day experience of being brutalised by the occupying power and the impact that that has on young minds. That cannot be discounted and the effects attributed to brainwashing by their own communities. These are relevant issues, but we cannot discount the huge pressures on the Palestinians’ day-to-day existence. Israel has by far the greater ability to make the Palestinians suffer. I fear that it will escalate its policy of punishing them collectively—a crime under international law—for the violent actions of a minority.
The subject of this debate is “Protecting Children in Conflict”. I would like to refer briefly to the plight of children in Gaza. The Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip has now entered its seventh year, spelling despair for its population of 1.6 million, 42% of whom are children aged 14 or younger. Some international organisations are suggesting that the situation cannot continue. The International Monetary Fund, for example, has said that the blockade and other restrictions imposed by the Israelis on Gaza cost the Palestinians 78% of their GDP, or an estimated $6.3 billion a year. With 80% of families in Gaza dependent on humanitarian aid, the consequences are more than economic.
Gaza’s children suffer immeasurably as a result of the severe restrictions Israel places on imports, exports and the movement of people, whether by land, air or sea. Restrictions on the import of construction equipment mean that vital infrastructure, such as housing, health care facilities and schools, are not fit for purpose. More worryingly, water and sewage treatment services are starting to break down. The blockade causes endemic and long-lasting poverty, preventing families from being able to put nutritious food on the table. That manifests itself in malnutrition among the children. Stunting as a result of long-term exposure to chronic malnutrition is found in 10% of children under five in Gaza. Anaemia affects 68% of children and a third of pregnant women. Some 90% of the water extracted from Gaza’s only aquifer is unfit for human consumption, and the UN has warned that it will be irreversibly damaged by 2020.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Unfortunately, the Israeli authorities would not allow the Select Committee to travel to Gaza. Does he share my concerns about salt in the water? When mothers have to make formula with water that contains salt, that has huge implications for their young children’s physical and mental development.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I was a member of a delegation that visited the west bank, and we, too, were refused entry to Gaza. I have certainly heard from other right hon. and hon. Members who visited Gaza and can corroborate exactly what she says. I think that the Minister should make representations to the Israeli authorities on humanitarian grounds.
The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs has said that the blockade is
“a collective punishment of all those living in Gaza and is a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law”.
I completely agree. There is no moral or legal justification for Israel’s collective punishment of over 800,000 children. Although they are kept apart by military checkpoints and separation walls—my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian and I were unable to gain access to Gaza because of the restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities—the children of Gaza’s fellow Palestinians in the illegally occupied west bank and East Jerusalem, and indeed in the refugee camps, also suffer profoundly as a result of the conflict.
The rights of Palestinian children are routinely violated as Israeli military detention fails to safeguard basic human rights or to adhere to international law in relation to detaining children. The most recent figures indicate that 196 Palestinian children were being held in Israeli military custody at the end of April, but I suspect that the number has increased dramatically in recent weeks. I am disturbed that the Israeli authorities are no longer releasing information on precisely how many children are being held in military detention.
My hon. Friend referred to the independent report “Children in Military Custody”, which was authored by seven senior lawyers from the United Kingdom and funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It highlights how two distinct legal systems are applied by the Israeli authorities to residents of the west bank depending on an individual’s race or national identity. When that policy was applied in South Africa, it was called apartheid, and international politicians, including John Kerry, have used that term with respect to what is happening in the west bank. That independent report by leading lawyers, commissioned by our own Foreign Office, concluded that Israel is in breach of seven articles of the UN convention on the rights of the child, including in relation to discrimination, the child’s best interests, premature resort to detention, non-separation from adults, prompt access to lawyers and the use of shackles.
When I was first elected, I had the opportunity to visit the west bank and see one of those military courts in operation. Some of the children are very young. Some are arrested in midnight raids. The crime for which they are most commonly arrested is throwing stones, and there is often little evidence that the arrested child is the one responsible. They are then shackled and blindfolded before being questioned without their parents being present and without access to any legal representation. There are extensive reports indicating that physical and verbal abuse by the Israeli authorities against those children is commonplace. They can be detained without charge for 188 days and then be made to wait two more years before the conclusion of their trial. They are often arrested in the refugee camps or the occupied territories, but they are held in military detention within Israel. Again, I am not a lawyer, but I believe that that contravenes a United Nations convention.
Most of those children are forced to sign confessions in Hebrew. They might have some understanding of Hebrew when it is spoken, but not when it is written. They often sign the confession in the hope of speeding up the trial. Unsurprisingly, given the flagrant disregard for international law, the overall conviction rate for Palestinian children in Israeli military courts—I should not laugh, but this number is like something from North Korea—is 99.74%.
I believe that a form of psychological warfare is being waged on an entire community and that it is children who are being made to bear the brunt of Israel’s punitive measures. I have witnessed those court proceedings while visiting Israel. Indeed, the image of a young boy the same age as my youngest son being marched along by soldiers with his hands and feet in shackles was truly shocking and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Recent events have served as a stark reminder of the brutality of life for children in conflict areas. As a parent, I wish that no mother or father had to experience the tragic loss of their child. For a serious commitment towards that end, we must understand that recent tragedies are rooted in a conflict that will not end until Israel acts in accordance with international law, United Nations resolutions and the overwhelming consensus of the international community in order to realise peace and justice in the middle east.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister, in conjunction with his ministerial colleagues, to press the Israeli Government to adhere to these international conventions, particularly in relation to the rights of the child.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who made a particularly important speech about education. I will refer to that as well, but he has covered the ground extensively. I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) for introducing the debate so well and so eloquently, and for her comradeship on International Development Committee trips to the middle east and elsewhere.
Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Somalia, Palestine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, and many other places: there is a growing list of terrible conflicts, particularly civil conflicts, around the world. In all these, women and children, in particular, are at risk in many different ways: violence, of course; education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough explained; health; and, as the hon. Member for East Lothian said, the way they think about things—their freedom of thought and freedom of faith.
In a powerful article in The Independent, the head of War Child, Rob Williams, wrote:
“Sexual violence in conflict zones includes extreme physical violence, the use of sticks, bats, bottles, the cutting of genitals, and the sexual torture of victims who are left with horrific injuries.”
Against anybody, these would be terrible, terrible acts; against children they are just unspeakable. Yet this kind of thing is going on day in, day out in many countries. It is not just about the violence itself but its consequences—not only the medical consequences that are so severe, but the rejection that can occur within these children’s communities and families because of things that have been done to them that are absolutely no fault of theirs. We hear of stories where girls and women who are raped are prosecuted for adultery. What an upside-down world we live in when that happens.
The article refers to the HEAL hospital in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Three years ago, the International Development Committee and I had the privilege of visiting that hospital, which was under the admirable leadership of Dr Lusi. Sadly, Dr Lusi passed away not so long ago. She was the subject of an outstanding obituary in The Economist that showed the sort of work that she and all those who worked with her in that place have done. In the first half of 2012, 74% of sexual violence survivors in the hospital were children—I repeat, 74%. We often hear about violence against women, which is absolutely terrible, but this is against children.
Then there is the issue of child soldiers, where I would like to introduce a slight element of hope. Although child soldiers are still recruited pretty much everywhere there is conflict, there can be a life after that. During the Committee’s most recent visit to Sierra Leone and Liberia, we saw two countries where child soldiers were commonplace—children as young as 10 taken and forced to carry arms and to kill members of their own families. Yet now, thanks to the intervention of the international community—in Sierra Leone, particularly the intervention of UK forces—those two countries are at peace, and many of the young children who were forced to be child soldiers are gradually adapting to a more peaceful life. A few years ago, I was involved in setting up a business in Sierra Leone, and some of the young men we were able to take on were former child soldiers. It is absolutely critical that those who have been involved, through no fault of their own, are able to re-engage in normal life afterwards. At the same time—we saw good evidence of this in Sierra Leone—there has to be emphasis on reconciliation: on truth coming out and on making sure that what went on in the past is not just brushed under the carpet. There is hope. There are examples in west Africa of how countries can come out of this, albeit with great pain and grief.
What are the answers? Perhaps “answers” is too trite a word to use. In his admirable work, together with many others, on violence against women in conflict and violence in conflict more generally, the Foreign Secretary has rightly focused on prosecution. War Child mentions volunteer committees, which are a more local solution in helping people to educate their own communities about what is going on and, perhaps, how to prevent it. There are also child safety centres. Last night, I attended the excellent debate on education led by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the former Prime Minister. Focusing in particular on Nigeria, he talked about safe schools where children could be protected in that most vital of all activities, education. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said—I believe I am quoting him—that a central part of the first response to a crisis must be a focus on education. I entirely agree. When the Committee visited Lebanon and Jordan, we saw the work that DFID was doing in supporting education. I congratulate DFID and, indeed, the Foreign Office on their rightful focus on that.
I would like to put on record my admiration for the welcome that Lebanon and Jordan have given to refugees. Let us not forget that Lebanon, with a population of 4 million, now has more than 1 million refugees from Syria. Twenty per cent. of its population are now refugees, yet they were welcomed pretty much with open arms. The same is true of Jordan. Not only that, but those countries have accepted refugee children into their own state education systems. Quite a high percentage of the children being educated in Lebanon’s state system are now Syrian refugees. Let us think about whether we would do the same in similar circumstances. In relative terms, that would mean 12 million refugees coming into the United Kingdom, and probably millions—because a high percentage are children—being educated in our state schools. Would we be prepared to be as hospitable as that? I hope so, but Lebanon is doing it now.
I am glad of the support that DFID is giving those countries in upping their numbers of school places, because that will need to be done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, education is not just a matter of going in and sorting it out for a few weeks or months—it takes a matter of years. The conflict in Syria is not going to go away; it is going to continue, regrettably and painfully. Therefore, our support for the education of those children must continue, wherever they are, including in Syria itself, where DFID is also helping, although obviously our Committee was unable to go there.
There is a serious problem, specifically, with girls’ education. In many countries, as the former Prime Minister said last night, girls are treated very much as second class in education. If there is not enough money to go round, they will be the ones who are not educated, or ideologies will say that it is not worth educating girls and they should not be educated. For Boko Haram, western education is forbidden, specifically education of girls.
Again, I want to introduce an element of hope. When we were in Sierra Leone, we saw examples of second-chance schools supported by DFID—schools for children who have completely missed out on education because of conflict but who are now able, in very difficult circumstances, to receive an education. Often, the buildings used are schools during the day and teachers go there in the evening or late afternoon to provide an education. It was humbling to see children crowding into those dirty classrooms, which had broken desks and no facilities and where white boards were a million miles away, desperate for a second chance at education, because they knew how important it was.
The impact of conflict on health, particularly that of children, is another issue. Worryingly, we are seeing the re-emergence of polio in Syria as a direct consequence of conflict. That is a problem not just for Syria, but for all of us. We had believed that we were close to eradicating polio—a magnificent achievement over the past 20 or 30 years—but its re-emergence in Syria may mean that many of those gains have been lost in that part of the world. Leishmaniasis, which is a terrible, disfiguring disease caused by the sandfly, is also on the increase in Syria. That is another disease that we were perhaps on track to, if not eradicating, certainly minimising around the world.
There are other diseases. In order to reduce the incidence of malaria, people need to sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets. I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. When people are in a conflict situation and are being driven from pillar to post, it is very unlikely that they will have access to bed nets, so they, and children and pregnant women in particular, will be more liable to catch malaria and possibly die from it.
I pay tribute to those organisations that provide health services in the most incredibly difficult circumstances, including Médecins sans Frontières, Christian and other faith-based hospitals that provide assistance all the way through conflicts, even though they are under desperate pressure, and the committed individuals who sometimes give their lives in the service of their fellow women and men.
I want to touch briefly on the question of thought, belief and freedoms. At a time of conflict, people’s way of life and the way in which they have been brought up can come under tremendous pressure, because sometimes conflicts are driven by ideology. Children are taken away and brainwashed into thinking something completely different, perhaps into hating their parents and their upbringing to the extent that some who have perhaps also been given drugs are prepared to kill their own parents or other members of their family. We sometimes forget that this not just about health, education and violence itself, but about the emotional trauma of conflict and the way in which all the certainties with which a child has been brought up are taken away and replaced by hatred by vile men.
I also want to talk about the United Nations and what the world can do that it is not doing at the moment. The United Nations Security Council has set out six violations against children in conflict: the killing and maiming of children; the recruitment or use of children as soldiers; sexual violence against children; attacks against schools or hospitals; denial of humanitarian access for children; and abduction of children. Sadly, we have read about all those things in our newspapers in recent weeks and months, yet too little is happening at the United Nations.
I am a great believer in the United Nations—it is the only game in town and the only thing we have internationally to work together—but it must do much, much more. First, it must speak up constantly about this issue, which is relevant not just to one, two or three countries, but to dozens of countries across the world. Secondly, as has been said, peacekeepers play a vital role. Personally, having seen peacekeepers in various countries, I do not think we make nearly enough use of them. They are often sitting in camps, just protecting themselves. They do not have a robust enough mandate. That was particularly true in the DRC, where they were not able to go out and deal with the very problems that we as taxpayers believed we were paying them to deal with. Yes, they were there—this is not to take anything away from the peacekeepers themselves—but their mandates were not strong enough, particularly for the protection of children and violence against civilians.
I believe that the UK has a very important, perhaps unique, role to play. We are involved in training peacekeepers in many of the regions affected by conflict. Our armed forces and trainers do a fantastic job, but I believe we could do much more. As we draw down from Afghanistan, I believe our armed forces can play a very important future role in providing training in peacekeeping and the protection of civilians, particularly women and children, and in perhaps more muscular peacekeeping than is the case at present around the world.
We also need to see action from local citizens. We have seen how the great example of Malala Yousafzai and her courageous stand galvanised the world, but we need to see far more of that and we need to protect and endorse such people.
We also need to see more mediators and more women in particular involved in mediation. Far too few women are involved in the reconciliation and mediation that needs to take place in order to bring peace. That is not because of a lack of incredibly capable women, but because they are not thought of or they are not in the right place at the right time. We need an active programme to train and develop women mediators internationally, so that they can go in and help those countries achieve peace.
In conclusion, we face a difficult situation. The situation for children in conflict is, I believe, getting worse, not better. We have seen some encouraging examples of how countries can come out of it, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia, and what can be done to reintegrate children affected by conflict, whether they have been involved as child soldiers or damaged by conflict. However, current events in Africa and the middle east in particular are throwing the issue into stark relief. We need much, much more robust international action. The United Nations needs to step up to the plate. I hope that in his response the Minister will outline what the UK Government are doing, particularly at the United Nations and with regard to the individual countries suffering from conflict at the moment.
I am delighted to follow the very thoughtful contributions made to the debate so far. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) for making it possible, and I apologise for missing the very first part of her speech. I was talking about conflict and children in another context elsewhere. I had not anticipated taking part in this debate, but such is its importance that I want to pick up on some of the points made by previous speakers and draw on my own experiences of visiting conflict zones.
This is, of course, a timely debate, for the most tragic of reasons. The images we saw from Palestine earlier this week of the three Israeli children who became victims of war starkly brought home to us the ghastly things and tragedies that are occurring daily in other parts of the world. Another image that brought that home was that of the Nigerian girls, who were the subject of last night’s excellent debate—of which I read, but, alas, was not part—led by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). For hundreds of girls to be taken by terrorists from their schools, where they expected to be educated and to do all the things our children take for granted, and for their lives now to be in the balance—they have perhaps already been sold into the sex trade or whatever, because such threats have been made under the nose of that country’s Government—is absolutely alarming.
So alarming is that situation that we now have to talk about “safe schools”. Schools should be places of safety. When we send our children off to school, we expect them to be looked after and safeguarded. The fact that terrorists can make them pawns in some misguided holy war—that is how they try to portray their terrorism—is quite inconceivable to us today.
A third image that sends a chill down all our spines was one I saw on a news report from the conflict involving the so-called ISIS forces in Iraq: on the back of a pick-up were two boys, who could not have been more than 10 years old, with two AK47s and belts of ammunition to go with them. Those 10-year-olds are combatants of war, who have been expected to join, and coaxed and promoted into, the front line of the ghastly and misguided conflict in that country. We recently debated an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill—I supported the amendment, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois)—to make sentencing mandatory for 16 to 18-year-olds caught in unlawful possession of a knife as a second offence. That is something pretty ghastly in this country, but to have children routinely taking AK47s into places of conflict perhaps puts it into context.
Those three images starkly portray the tragedy that we are debating today, but they are of course the tip of the iceberg, as are the 250,000 children—surely an underestimate—who are child soldiers, including the notorious ones in places such as Uganda. I repeat the tributes paid by all hon. Members to the staff of the NGOs, whom many of us have visited and worked with in places of conflict. They absolutely put their lives on the line to try to protect and to give some safety and security to children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves victims of conflict. I particularly want to repeat the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) to Rob Williams and the excellent charity, War Child. He does such a good job with that charity, as he previously did with UK-based charities involved with families. Such images haunt all hon. Members and, I am sure, all our constituents.
There are, however, things in which we should take great pride, and I am sure that we will hear more about them when the Minister sums up. As in so many cases, the UK is setting the example—putting its money where its mouth is and leading the world—in trying to turn around the juggernaut of children’s involvement in conflict zones.
The international protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict, which was launched by the UK, is working to establish international standards to help to strengthen prosecutions for rape in conflict, and it is increasing the prospects for successful convictions. We have got to bring people to book to show that such sexual violence is unacceptable. In whatever part of the world, developed or undeveloped, it must not happen and the perpetrators must not get away with it. We must all work together against the forces of evil who allow it to happen.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. In looking at our record on international prosecutions for acts of sexual violence so far, would the suggestion made by one of his colleagues about having a local form of justice, rather the western developed world being seen to impose its standards on other countries, be a better way forward?
I absolutely agree. If there can be a home-grown solution—so that people have ownership of it, and it can be adapted to their cultures and to the baggage of tribal conflicts, histories and cultural identities that have been asserted through violence—that has to be better. Otherwise, there is a risk that the former colonial power is seen as trying to reassert its ways.
There are some common basic moral standards that we should not resile from asserting in the international context, including that children are children, not young adults to be sent into war zones or to become victims of war in all its ghastly forms. They are children, and we treat children differently—they need our protection and respect—whether they are in Khartoum, Boston, Worthing, East Lothian or anywhere else in the world. We should not resile from the expression of such international values, in which we should take pride.
The Government have already committed to providing more than £140 million to the survivors of sexual violence and their supporters. In the context of the many victims of historical cases of horrendous sexual abuse that have recently hit the headlines in the United Kingdom, a key factor is making sure that victims who have had the bravery to come forward get the support they need in order to come to terms with the trauma that befell them, often as children. In this debate, we are talking about victims who have perhaps seen their parents gruesomely killed in front of them, their homes burned, their sisters raped, or their brothers, sisters and school friends kidnapped and taken off into slavery or the sex trade. These children need our support, and they need rehabilitation to get over traumas caused by what happened in front of their eyes, which is why that project is so important. The Government have also called for all soldiers and peacekeepers to be trained not only to understand the gravity of sexual violence in conflict, but to help to prevent it and to protect people. Those are all practical measures that we can sometimes overlook.
The Government, particularly the Foreign Secretary, should be given great credit for the great initiative of the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict—quite rightly, it hit the media, including our television screens—which he co-hosted with the special envoy Angelina Jolie last month in the east end of London. It brought together more than 140 countries and more than 900 experts, making it the biggest global meeting ever convened on the issue. Let us hope that it was not just a talking shop, but that delegates from nations where such violence happens daily could take comfort, ideas and support, could make contacts and could engage with projects that will help them in the future.
The preventing sexual violence initiative—again, the Government are spearheading it—aims to strengthen and support international efforts to respond to sexual violence in conflict, including by enhancing the capacity of countries, institutions and communities to support survivors and to end impunity for perpetrators. A team of UK experts has been deployed to conflict-affected countries at the heart of the problem, such as Libya, Syria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Mali, to name but a few. The initiative provides good practical experience, and we should be proud that DFID, our Foreign Office and this Government are pioneering, leading and setting such an example on the global stage.
Education is absolutely vital in all this, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) mentioned. That is why I welcome DFID’s pledge that by 2015 it will spend half of its direct educational aid on unstable or war-torn countries where more than two fifths of the world’s out-of-school children are found and where a lack of education can contribute directly to conflict. In such a revolving doors scenario, kids are indoctrinated to hate other kids and families from other tribes and religions in other parts of the country. If they are brought up to accept that as normal, it is little surprise that they are susceptible to taking up arms when a conflict happens. We have to start at the beginning, by educating against conflict and the mentality of vehement retaliation right at the outset. Education is so important. The United Kingdom’s commitment of up to £300 million for the Global Partnership for Education over the next four years is therefore particularly welcome.
Many children out of school are marginalised and hard to reach, and nearly half of them live in fragile and conflict-affected areas. Marginalisation affects children right through the education system, from early education to university level. In post-conflict environments and fragile states, getting children back into school and addressing out-of-school youth, some of whom may have been child soldiers or refugees themselves, helps to bring back a sense of equity, justice and cohesion to what can be a fractured society. That has to be the start.
Girls’ education is a big issue. The girls’ education challenge will give up to 1 million of the world’s poorest girls the opportunity to improve their lives through education. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford was important: if more women were doing the educating—and, indeed, the negotiating before or after a conflict, as well—there might be a better chance of avoiding the worst excesses of conflict in the first place.
We will perhaps think of places such as Afghanistan, where under the Taliban regime girls were excluded from education. Despite all the horrors that have taken place in that country, one great success that we should never cease to emphasise is that so many young women and girls in Afghanistan now have the opportunity to get an education in school and to go on to university. We should never underestimate the importance of that. However, there are other countries, which are not in such familiar conflict zones, where young women do not get access to education. There is so much more to do, particularly in parts of Africa. That is why DFID’s priority of concentrating aid on getting more girls into education across the world is a good one that many of us can support.
I have seen projects in places such as Ghana. In my constituency, I run the EYE project—it stands for Eco, Young and Engaged—and every year we have an eco-summit; recently we had our seventh. A very enthusiastic local man called Jib Hagan runs a charity called CARE—Collecting and Recycling Ecologically. He collects old computers that are being thrown out by local schools and businesses, takes them to Ghana and puts them in schools, pre-loaded with lots of information about how to be more environmentally friendly, how girls can get better education, engagement in the democratic process and so on. In return, he brings back lots of wonderful shopping bags made from old plastic carrier bags by some of the kids and the families out there.
A few years ago, we did a satellite link-up with the British Council between one school in a very impoverished area whose pupils were using those computers and the 250 local kids at my eco-summit. Incredibly, the technology worked. British kids and Ghanaian kids in completely contrasting environments spoke to each other, and understood and empathised with one another. It was a wonderful moment. To see the advantage that a bit of old technology that we were throwing out had brought to those kids—it was going to transform their educational opportunities and, I hope, keep that country out of conflict—was deeply humbling, and a very proud moment for those of us who had helped to make it happen.
Girls’ education is a particularly important part of preventing conflict in the future. I will draw on a couple of examples. I do not need to go over all the statistics about what is happening in Syria at the moment, but there are now 2.3 million children in Syria who are out of school or at risk of dropping out of school. Many hundreds of thousands are refugees outside Syria, as well. I am due to visit some Syrian refugee camps in Jordan later this month—they are vast camps—just as some years ago in Syria I visited what was then the largest refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the world. It was for Iraqis fleeing conflict who had gone to Damascus. I saw the great efforts of the UNHCR and other charities, which were trying to make sure that there was some normality in the lives of those kids. Getting some ongoing education for them was absolutely key. We must make sure that children who are displaced because of the horrible war dragging on in Syria can at least have some semblance of a normal childhood by continuing some form of education. The crisis in Syria has placed many women and girls at risk of violence, exploitation and insecurity. We often forget that.
Drawing on some of my previous trips, the very first parliamentary delegation that I went on, some 15 or so years ago, was to Ethiopia. That country had been riven by civil war under a particularly nasty Marxist regime. People had been driven out of their properties and sexual violence was part of the conflict. I remember visiting the Fistula hospital in Addis Ababa. It is a charity set up by some wonderful medics, where visiting clinicians go to help out. Daily I saw 12-year-old, 13-year-old and 14-year-old women—in some cases they had walked hundreds of miles—who had had bad experiences of giving birth because they had been too young. They were victims either of conflict, of misguided forced marriage or of being raped, effectively under the noses of their families in their villages, and had then been cast out. The only sanctuary and help they could get was by walking literally hundreds of miles to that wonderful hospital in Addis Ababa. The war in Ethiopia did huge damage but the country is, I hope, on a better path now.
I visited schools in the drought-affected areas, and, as I said earlier, kids were walking 10 miles or more each day to and from their homes to attend school, because it was such a big deal. They loved it. Nobody was playing hooky there; no truancy officer was needed. They went to school because their parents wanted them to go, as they could see it was a good thing. The kids themselves wanted to go to school and get an education, because that was their ladder out of poverty. It would stop them getting sucked into the conflict that so often happens in these impoverished zones, where people will fight over a little dustbowl of land.
I remember going to Mozambique—again, a country riven by vicious civil war over many, many years. There were many displaced kids who had fled parts of Mozambique and had gone to what they thought was the relative safety of South Africa, but had ended up in the sex trade. I worked with some hugely dedicated charities in Mozambique that were trying to rescue those kids.
A few years ago I went to Tajikistan, where I was taken to a school in Duschanbe, because I wanted to see some of the refugees from Afghanistan—there were a lot of them there. They asked me to give a class to kids of all different ages. They spoke wonderful English and were really enthusiastic about being there. They were there because they had been driven out of Afghanistan. There had been a big spate of kidnappings: brothers and sisters had been kidnapped; indeed, the teacher’s own children had been kidnapped and she had never seen them again. Tajikistan was giving them sanctuary, and had given them a school and some teaching resources, because the way forward is education.
There are many other subjects that we could mention in this debate. Forced marriages are another form of conflict, frankly. Female genital mutilation, of which we have been hearing so much recently, is another form of violence inflicted on children. It is not acceptable in the modern world, and we should not be afraid of saying so, whatever cultural differences might separate us from those people who say it is all right. It is not all right. It is not acceptable in this day and age. It is violence against girls and women.
There is no excuse for children being caught up in war and conflict. Children are different and special, and as adults we have a duty to do whatever we can to protect them, in this country or in any far-flung corner of the globe in which they are involved in conflict. In many of the countries that we are talking about, almost half the population is under the age of 18, so we are talking about huge numbers of people who are the future of those countries. If we do not get it right for those war-torn countries now, we will not get it right in the future. If they get back on the road to peace and prosperity, their kids might at last get an education and a chance to prosper.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) and the Backbench Business Committee for providing the opportunity to debate this subject. It is sadly not the best attended debate, but that is often the case on Thursday afternoons. However, the speeches have been genuinely excellent, if a little depressing in content.
We have heard much about the suffering of children who are affected by conflict and about the disproportionate, devastating and far-reaching impact that conflict has on children’s lives. Armed conflicts continue to take the young lives of thousands of children each year, whether as civilians or as child soldiers. My hon. Friend said that, whereas children used to be caught up in collateral damage, they are increasingly being targeted during conflict, whether to be recruited as child soldiers or as the victims of sexual violence.
When children are affected by conflict, it has a lasting legacy, even when countries emerge from that conflict. Some people have physical injuries because they have been maimed in the conflict. My hon. Friend spoke about the concern over the growth of indiscriminate explosive weapons such as cluster bombs. Other people are harmed psychologically and suffer trauma because of what they witnessed or took part in during their childhood. Quite often, people suffer because they have missed out on education or suffered health consequences. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) spoke of the suffering and deprivation of the children living in Gaza.
Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Uganda with Oxfam. It was the first overseas visit that I made as a Member of Parliament. What I saw there still resonates with me today. I went to the camps for internally displaced people in the north. That was at the beginning of the peace talks between the Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, and there were about 1.5 million people living in the camps. I heard horrific stories about child soldiers who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. More than 25,000 children, some as young as 10, were abducted, indoctrinated and forced to become child soldiers or, in the case of girls, soldiers’ wives. Some were forced to commit atrocities against their own families, such as killing or amputating the limbs of their parents, brothers or sisters, so that they lived in fear of returning to their villages and would not escape.
Being forced to become a child soldier does not necessarily condemn someone for the rest of their life. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) talked about setting up a business in Sierra Leone that recruited former child soldiers. I commend him for that. If he has not read Ishmael Beah’s excellent book, “A Long Way Gone”, I recommend it to him. It is aptly described as “a child’s journey to hell and back”. Ishmael Beah was recruited at the age of 13 by the Government army in Sierra Leone, but was eventually released. It is the amazing story of how he was helped by a UNICEF rehabilitation centre. I think that he is now living in New York and has published his first novel. He is a compelling writer and the book offers inspiration and hope for those who are suffering a similar fate today.
I also pay tribute to Emmanuel Jal, who is a former child soldier from South Sudan. I was privileged to meet him at Glastonbury last year in his new incarnation as a rap artist and political activist. That just shows what people can achieve. The fact that those two men are out there as spokespeople for former child soldiers is incredibly inspiring.
Many Members have spoken about the importance of education. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was very specific in what he asked of the Minister. I look forward to what the Minister has to say about education often being neglected and underfunded in the humanitarian response to conflict. The hon. Gentleman argued that education should be included in the first phase of the humanitarian response and that at least 4% of the funding in such situations should be targeted at education. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
As we have heard, this is a timely debate, given the publication on Tuesday of the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, which documents 23 conflict situations in which children were recruited, maimed, killed or subjected to sexual violence and other grave human rights abuses in 2013. The UN reports that seven national armies recruited child soldiers, as did 50 armed groups in 14 countries. The Secretary-General concluded that last year was marked by “worrisome trends” that necessitate “a redoubling of efforts”, including
“a significant spike in the killing and maiming of children”.
There were 4,000 cases of the recruitment and use of children. Of course, those are only the documented cases and there could have been many more. The report also noted the continued detention of children allegedly involved with armed groups.
In Afghanistan, the Secretary-General documented the recruitment of boys as young as eight to be suicide bombers or sex slaves, or to manufacture and plant improvised explosive devices. In December, there were 196 boys in juvenile rehabilitation centres in Afghanistan on national security related charges. The UN has received several reports of alleged ill-treatment of child detainees, including sexual abuse. The number of child casualties in Afghanistan increased by 30% last year and the UN verified reports of sexual violence against girls and boys committed not only by the Taliban and the Haqqani network, but by the national police. Children were also affected by attacks on hospitals and schools. Schools were attacked on at last 73 occasions, resulting in at least 11 children losing their lives.
War Child reports that one in seven Afghan children will not reach their fifth birthday. There are no social services to protect the poorest and most vulnerable children. One in three children under the age of five is moderately or severely underweight. I could go on with the horrific statistics that are revealed by the report. Some 49% of Afghanistan’s internally displaced people are under 18. That all demonstrates the need to maintain a focus on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the international security assistance force.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, the Central African Republic presents one of the most pressing challenges. The recruitment of child soldiers in that country is described as “endemic”. I have been contacted by many constituents, as I am sure have other Members, who support the Save the Children campaign for the more than 1 million children who are desperate for life-saving assistance. Save the Children has highlighted the threat of sexual violence in the CAR and I know that the Minister has focused on that issue. Indeed, I was pleased to attend his “Voices of Children in Conflict” event at the global summit to end sexual violence, as did my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, where we heard more about the efforts to help the estimated 6,000 child soldiers in the CAR, 40% of whom are girls and are more at risk of sexual violence. As the Secretary-General summarised it, children are suffering “abominable atrocities”. We have heard of cases of boys being beheaded, for example.
I understand that the international contact group on the CAR is due to meet next week. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on his priorities for that, and on what he thinks can be achieved. He will know that Save the Children has called for the appointment of a special envoy and the deployment of UK experts.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the picture is a little more mixed. Some 30,000 child soldiers have been demobilised, according to the World Bank’s figures from 2011. There has been progress in prosecuting the people responsible for recruiting child soldiers. The UN has reported that 910 children were recruited in 2013 to be used as combatants or for supporting roles in the camps. Most of the girls who were recruited were subjected to sexual slavery. The UN was able to verify 209 cases of conflict-related sexual violence. UNICEF has done excellent work to help nearly 5,000 children who had been associated with the conflict. It is imperative that such work continues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington made a powerful speech about his personal experiences of visiting Israel and the occupied territories. I am contacted regularly by constituents who are concerned by the plight of Palestinian children in particular. As we have heard, by the end of December, 154 boys were being held in Israeli military detention, most in pre-trial detention. There is concern at the fact that that more than 1,000 children were arrested by Israeli security forces last year. As my hon. Friend said, that conflict is a tragedy for the children on both sides and for the families on both sides who have lost children, who have seen their children suffer or who have had to watch their children grow up with the ongoing conflict, perhaps being stoned on the way to school, suffering abuse or living in fear of rocket attacks. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
While my hon. Friend is on that point, I would like to ask her opinion on the specific recommendations of the report that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Baroness Scotland commissioned on the treatment of Palestinian child detainees, which the Israeli authorities have largely ignored.
I have read the powerful “Children in Military Custody” report, to which my hon. Friend refers. Obviously, the Minister is not in a position to take it forward with the Israeli authorities, but the recommendations should be acted on.
Burma, too, is an ongoing concern. We had an excellent debate in Westminster Hall a week or two ago about the continuing conflict, particularly as it affects ethnic minorities in Burma, especially in Rakhine state, but also in other areas where it remains a problem. Given the time available, and that fact that we documented it in some detail in that debate, I will move on. However, at the end of the sexual violence summit, the Minister said that addressing the problem of children in conflict was a personal priority for him. Will he therefore tell us whether the training offered by the UK to the Burmese military was conditional on ending the use of child soldiers? There is also the problem of the prevalence of sexual violence in the Burmese military and the immunity enjoyed by the army. Given that we are providing some support for the Burmese army, it is important that we flag up the use of child soldiers with Burma.
As we have heard, the devastating crisis in Syria has created more than 1.2 million child refugees. I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) on ensuring that children are not the forgotten victims of the conflict. Several Members paid tribute to his Adjournment debate last night on the abduction of the Nigerian schoolgirls and the need for safe schools there. I was a present at a debate that he held a couple of months ago about education for children, particularly displaced Syrian refugee children in the camps in Lebanon. He brought forward an amazing initiative. He had been talking to the Department for International Development that day and the Minister said that he would act upon the former Prime Minister’s suggestion for sharing school time: there are two shifts in a school, and the Lebanese children would attend for part of the day and the Syrian refugee children would attend for the rest of the day. Several hundred thousand children would benefit from that initiative, and I commend my right hon. Friend for that, and his work on addressing the problem of Boko Haram and the Nigerian schoolgirls. Boko Haram was added to the Secretary-General’s list published this week, and many other countries, such as Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia were also included.
Slightly more positively, the national army in Chad has met all the requirements of its action plan and has been removed from the list of those recruiting children, which is good news. That shows the difference that the UN can make. It is imperative that the international community pushes for, first and foremost of course, an end to all those devastating conflicts, but also for special consideration for how children can be protected, and for these countries to work with the UN on the development and implementation of action plans.
The examples we have heard today demonstrate the multiple and severe ways in which children are affected by conflict, necessitating a multifaceted, variable and enduring response from the international community. The UN Children, Not Soldiers campaign launched this March works in Afghanistan, Chad, DRC, Burma, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen to end and prevent the recruitment of child soldiers by Government security forces by 2016. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how the UK is supporting this, and what discussions there have been on deploying child protection experts. It is important, too, as I am sure that the Minister agrees, that the FCO provides robust protections for human rights defenders speaking up for children who are denied a voice.
I am sorry—I am making an awful lot of demands on the Minister in the time he has—but it would be helpful to have an update on how enforcement of the arms trade treaty could protect children and deter the recruitment of child soldiers. I am sure that the Minister will, when he speaks, reiterate the personal commitment he has shown to helping children in conflict. He will know that the FCO has our full support for its work to end sexual violence.
I hope that the Minister can tell us a little more about the concrete steps taken at the summit last month to protect some of the most vulnerable children around the world from such appalling crimes and to ensure that survivors can access age-appropriate support, given the particular difficulties children will face in speaking out about the sexual violence that they have endured.
Today’s debate has also highlighted DFID’s role in working to secure access to education, health care and humanitarian assistance. I have not spent so much time talking about education because several hon. Members have done more than justice to that topic today. It is obviously incredibly important.
I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian again for leading the debate. She understandably cares passionately about the subject and I commend her for her efforts to ensure that the specific needs and vulnerabilities of children in conflict are not overlooked or subsumed in a homogenous approach that neglects the complexities of these atrocities.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) on securing this important debate and on the passionate, informed and articulate way in which she introduced it. She was right to highlight some of the complexities of these important issues, and I will come to some of the very specific points that she asked about later.
It needs to be said that the subject has been at the forefront of the Government’s agenda, coming as it does after the recent global summit to end sexual violence in conflict. The hon. Lady was right to congratulate the Foreign Secretary and all the officials who were involved in organising the summit, which was the largest ever held on the issue. It set in motion a series of unprecedented practical steps and commitments, such as the first ever international protocol on how to document and investigate sexual violence in conflict, and a statement of action, uniting Governments, UN agencies, civil society, experts and survivors in a shared determination to tackle sexual violence.
When it comes to children’s lives, all efforts must be made. That is why I am personally committed to tackling this issue, not least as the father of three children. I am concentrating my efforts on raising awareness and helping to prevent the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, focusing on demobilising child soldiers and preventing sexual violence against children, working with multilateral agencies and encouraging those with successful track records to assist those who still have challenges.
During visits to Somalia, South Sudan and the DRC, I have witnessed at first hand the devastation that conflict causes not just to children, but to whole communities. I have also seen the excellent work of NGOs such as War Child, which make a real difference to children’s lives on the ground. I take the opportunity to join other Members of all parties in acknowledging and thanking all the NGOs involved in the issue for their tireless commitment and energy.
As several hon. Members highlighted, on the fringes of the ESVC summit, I held and spoke at a meeting on children and armed conflict in front of a knowledgeable and large audience. There were powerful testimonies from a survivor of the war in Sierra Leone and a child soldier from Uganda, both of whom spoke bravely and articulately about their experiences. Closer to home, a very brave lady, who was affected by the conflict in Bosnia, spoke. That collectively underlined the grave dangers that children face during conflict and the need for us to take urgent action to prevent this from affecting a greater number of children around the world.
In addition to that fringe meeting in the ESVC summit, I also brought together Ministers from the DRC and Somalia along with countries that have experience of successfully tackling the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) rightly mentioned Sierra Leone, whose Minister underlined the importance of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes to ensure that children have crucial access to education and training. As other hon. Members have highlighted, that is vital in ensuring that children become less vulnerable to recruitment and sexual violence. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) rightly said, those who have made progress more recently, for example, Chad, have a significant role to play in assisting others.
At this stage let me tackle head-on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford about the role of the United Nations. It has been 15 years since the Security Council recognised children in armed conflict as an issue of international peace and security, with the adoption of resolution 1261. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly pointed out, the United Kingdom continues to play a leading role at the United Nations and internationally on that issue. I was therefore pleased that under the UK’s presidency of the Security Council in July last year, the UN adopted a strong presidential statement to protect the robust mandate of the UN special representative for children affected by armed conflict, as well as introducing steps for tackling persistent perpetrators. That was followed by UN Security Council resolution 2143 in March this year, which outlines practical steps for combating violations against children, while drawing attention to attacks on schools.
I commend the efforts of the United Nations in tackling that issue, and in particular the excellent UN special representative of the Secretary-General for the initiative Children, not Soldiers, which is designed to end the recruitment and use of children by Government armed forces in conflict by 2016. As a result of the SRSG’s excellent work in that area, more than 20 countries have agreed action plans with the UN, and to halt the recruitment and use of children—including, most recently, the Government of Yemen. Those action plans play a crucial role in putting pressure on the perpetrators of those abhorrent violations against children.
In Africa, as I mentioned, we have seen progress in Chad with a completion of its action plan, and a recommitment from South Sudan this month to the action plan it signed in 2012. We must be clear, however, that this issue does not only affect African countries. As we saw in the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, which was released on Tuesday, grave violations have been committed against children in 23 countries, including Iraq, Syria and Burma, and all those countries have been rightly mentioned in this debate.
In Syria and the wider region, 5.5 million children are in need of education, and more than half are out of school. There is danger of a “lost generation” of Syrian children experiencing trauma, displacement and missing out on education, which is the cornerstone for brighter futures. Their lives have been disrupted and potentially wasted. That is why the UK is supporting UNICEF and others in Syria and the region through the No Lost Generation initiative, which aims to increase support for education, psychosocial support, and protection for Syrian children. In addition to education, support partners are running child-friendly spaces that provide a safe place for Syrian children to play and study. This is therefore a global issue that requires a global solution. I highlight to the House the importance that the Prime Minister and Government attach to the girl summit that will be held in July in the United Kingdom, which will hopefully mobilise domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation, and early and forced marriage.
To return briefly to the Minister’s comments about Lebanon and Jordan, does he recognise a possible future problem in that our aid is supporting refugees whereas the Jordanian and Lebanese populations are struggling as rent prices are forced up? We must guard against that possible tension in the future.
The hon. Lady is right to make that point and there are huge challenges, primarily because of the scale of what is happening in Syria and the displacement of people, both inside Syria and across geopolitical boundaries. In a moment I will detail some of the support that the Department for International Development is providing to people still within Syria, and those who are outside.
Let me use this opportunity to respond to some of the important points that the hon. Lady raised. Hopefully, she will be aware that the UK is an active member of the UN working group on children and armed conflict, and right at the forefront of the international response to issues of child soldiers and child protection. The UK pushes at multilateral level for the inclusion of child protection in peacekeeping responses through UN mandates, both as they are renewed and initial resolutions. Child protection advisers are currently deployed through the UN missions in Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The hon. Lady was right to ask forcefully about child protection training for front-line staff, and the UK is providing £232,000 for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to develop pre-deployment child protection training modules for military and police peacekeepers who encounter children affected by armed conflict. She mentioned the draft Lucens guidelines, and the Department welcomes that those underline existing rules for international humanitarian law to promote better understanding and implementation of the Geneva conventions and their protocols. The draft guidelines form part of our wider protection of civilians approach. A decision on UK Government support for those guidelines needs cross-Whitehall agreement, and we are engaging with our colleagues across Departments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made an excellent speech that articulately and strongly highlighted the terrible events and crimes that affect children. I know he has been to the DRC, and he will therefore be aware of the funding that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides to a project in that country led by War Child. I recently visited Goma and saw for myself the excellent work being done by the UN on disarmament, demobilisation and the reintegration of children back into communities. It must also be acknowledged that authorities in the DRC have made good progress in removing children from the ranks of the Congolese army, and they are significantly committed to implementing their action plan, which they discussed in the ESVC summit and the fringe meetings that took place.
My hon. Friend also, quite rightly, mentioned the importance of education, and as part of the package to support the Nigerian Government after the terrible events that have occurred in northern Nigeria, DFID, along with the United States Agency for International Development, is hoping to put in place policies and funding that will draw back into education more than 1 million children in northern Nigeria. DFID is the largest bilateral education donor. Some 11% of its funding goes on education aid, half of which is committed to being spent in fragile and conflicted-affected states. The UK funds partners to provide education supply kits in refugee camps in Syria, and is committed to providing packs of textbooks to benefit 300,000 Syrian children and to funding programmes in Syria to provide basic education. I inform my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) that an open working group at the UN will conclude a report on post-2015 goals for discussion at the General Assembly. Education will clearly form an integral part of that, and those discussions are ongoing.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made a powerful contribution discussing primarily the challenges that are raging in the middle east, particularly as they relate to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I reiterate that we utterly condemn the appalling murders of both Israeli and Palestinian children, and we stand ready to help bring those responsible to justice. We are concerned about the recent increase in violence in Gaza and the risks to children. Rockets coming from Gaza into Israel must stop. We call on Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to work together to allow for the legal use of the Gaza strip for innocent people. I also inform the hon. Gentleman that DFID has a number of initiatives to protect children specifically in the region, including psychosocial support and clearing schools of unexploded devices.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has knowledge of, passion for and interest in Africa. He was right to highlight the appalling actions there, including women being raped and then prosecuted, and ending up in prison, as I have seen for myself, and the extraordinary challenge of child soldiers. He was right to suggest that progress can and is being made in reconciliation and rehabilitation. Like the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), I saw for myself the displaced peoples camps up in Gulu in northern Uganda—it sounds as though we were there at a similar time—and the extraordinary work being done by NGOs such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, not just on assimilating people back into communities, but on forgiveness in such difficult and challenging areas.
My hon. Friend may also be interested to know of the significant progress that has been made by Chad, Sierra Leone and Liberia on stopping recruitment in the first place by putting in place policies on, for example, birth registration. The safer schools initiative is important. Hopefully, he is aware that the UK has invested in that initiative in northern Nigeria, which is being ably led by our ex-Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was right to crystallise some of the horrific events we have seen recently. Hopefully, he is aware of the support that the UK Government are providing to the Nigerian Government specifically to deal with the challenges in northern Nigeria. He was right to highlight the fact that the UK is leading in that area, whether on ending impunity, building capacity, training, assistance for rehabilitation or allocating funding.
My hon. Friend was correct, as he concluded his remarks, to highlight the importance of forced marriage and female genital mutilation. In July, the Prime Minister will host the UK’s first girl summit, but I should take this opportunity to be unequivocal on the UK position on FGM and forced marriages. In the UK, both are criminal offences, and they are child abuse when minors are involved. We are fully committed to tackling those issues, for example through the work of the joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office forced marriage unit, and through providing funding for NGOs.
The hon. Member for Bristol East, who spoke for the Opposition, was right to mention the challenges and the horrific events that have taken place in the Central African Republic. We have contributed £23 million to the CAR, providing emergency health care and support for hundreds of thousands of people. The CAR interim president has rightly referred the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court, which has the scope to investigate the allegations, but the situation is dire, particularly outside the capital, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that UN Security Council resolution 2149, which was adopted earlier this year, is deployed by 15 September.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s points on Burma, but I want to ensure that the House understands that the Burmese Government are committed to ending the practice that she mentioned, building on the progress since signing the action plan with the UN in June 2012. Some child soldiers have been released in Burma, but we are working closely with the Burmese authorities to ensure that releases continue.
All parties to armed conflict, state and non-state alike, must abide by international law. The protection of civilians during armed conflict is a priority for the United Kingdom and forms an integral part of our building stability overseas strategy. We therefore remain committed to making progress. I believe that such abuse of children, wherever it is in the world, but particularly in conflict areas, should not and must not be tolerated. The words “children” and “soldiers” should not and do not belong in the same sentence.
I thank all hon. Members for taking part in the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, we might not have had quantity, but we have certainly had quality in the contributions. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) was right to say that the situation regarding protecting children in conflict is getting worse. I was pleased that my hon. Friend drew attention to the UN report published on Tuesday that makes that clear.
There was hope in the debate. If we had had a debate before the Syria crisis, we would not have emphasised education as much as we have today. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), in an in-depth, considered and informed contribution—it was not lengthy—told us of his personal experience of the benefits that education can bring. It is not an add-on, but an essential part of our response to humanitarian crisis. The difference is that the Syrian refugees are not people for whom conflict was the last straw. Those people had quite good lives by middle eastern standards—in many cases, they are professional people.
For children who have seen and experienced things that no child should ever see, there is not a loss of hope, because children have a wonderful quality—resilience. All we need to do is give them that bridge to a life that was good. That can mean education or an attachment to one person in their lives who makes them feel valued. I presume the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was talking about going to the Zaatari camp. One amazing thing that struck me is that families there now have a supermarket to go to. It would be the most amazing therapeutic experience for a child to be in a supermarket trolley, because it is a bridge to a life in which that child was a happy child. We need to offer children all the time those bridges and opportunities to a better and happier time, and to a childhood.
I thank the Minister for the work that he and his Department are doing. He has the support of Members on both sides of the House. Today, it seems that we are all comrades.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of protecting children in conflict.