Children in Syria live under the constant threat of violence. The blatant flouting of international humanitarian and human rights law has earned this crisis the dubious honour of being recognised as the most significant humanitarian protection crisis in living memory.1 More than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, with deepening vulnerability disproportionately affecting children.2 Conflict contexts, by their very nature, are crises of humanitarian protection, however, the brutality and indiscriminate actions by warring parties within Syria, are exceptional.
The children and youth of Syria have become collateral damage in a situation beyond their control. The scale and continuity of violence, the years of living in or under the threat of military action, the loss of life, livelihoods, infrastructure and the risk of physical injury warrant immediate and uncompromising child protection interventions.This is not only about protecting lives, but also about protecting childhoods and children?s ability to become healthy and functioning adults in the future.
The international humanitarian community struggles year on year to meet the mounting needs as insecurity, lack of humanitarian access, gross violations of international law and a lack of political will exacerbate the complexity and scale of suffering. As each year passes, children?s exposure to violence, exploitation and adoption of negative coping mechanisms for survival escalates.
In February 2018, WorldVision spoke to 1,254 Syrian girls and boys in Southern Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.3 They talked about their daily lives, their hopes for the future and the things they think about. Their stories included war-induced violence, displacement, and missing, separated and deceased family members. They also talked about home and their eagerness to restore their lives as they once were. All were stories of daily struggle that showed hardships that these children face yet cannot change on their own.
Together, the children described material and social stressors that range from situations of violence to daily struggles for basic services: conflict-induced violence, violence from caregivers, unsafe and overcrowded living conditions, working to support their families, and finally, poverty and isolation that limit access to systems of protection, education, health care, and even water.One quarter of the children named four or more stressors in their lives.
The accumulation and combination of these stressors can contribute to life-altering and long-term consequences for children who have already endured years of violence, poverty and precarious living conditions.5
For children exposed to warfare and other types of violence, stressors can have a significant effect on mental health including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), toxic stress, depression, anxiety, and reduced levels of resilience. The severity and increasing number of stressors, if unaddressed, increase the likelihood that children will experience mental illness, longer term health effects such as heart disease and strokes, diminished coping abilities, violence and life-long poverty in their lives.6
If the number and severity of daily stressors can be reduced, the potential long-term effects of exposure to violence can be mitigated. Reducing daily stressors strengthens coping mechanisms, builds back resiliency and sets a positive course towards recover y. Because stressor s can be potentially traumatic and/or chronic (daily, ongoing) and range from a lack of access to water, food or medical treatment to acts of violence, the spectrum of programmes and interventions needed to reduce, mitigate and prevent stressors must also be broad.7
Children and families need programmes that promote their resilience and increase coping mechanisms to mitigate the effects of stressors. Expansion and investment in mental health and psychosocial support programmes(MHPSS) is urgently required.
These programmes have shown to reduce levels of stress, insecurity, emotional and behaviour difficulty and protect childhood development trajectories.8 Moreover, mental health and psychosocial support programmes can strengthen social support networks that enhance trust and tolerance among children and youth, help to develop reconciliation, enable children to become active agents of change in their communities and restore hope.
Families and children need systems and programmes that prevent violence and protect children from violence at the community and family level. Violence in the home, at school and in communities are stressors that require a systems approach; formal and informal actors and services that offer reporting, referral and response mechanisms are essential. Programmes that change attitudes and behaviours, offer coping mechanisms and build the resilience of caregivers are also needed.