In fact, a humanitarian crisis existed even before this conflict began. The near-total destruction of Iraq's infrastructure in the 1991 Gulf War began a decade of dramatic decline in the health, education and well-being of women and children that has been only marginally offset by the United Nations' oil-for-food program.
War thwarts access to basic needs
Accustomed to living in distress and uncertainty for more than a decade, millions of children and their families now find themselves living in a war zone, entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance. War is likely to disrupt the government's food-distribution network, which has been the only source of food for some 60 percent of Iraqi children and adults. Essential medicines -- such as those for children suffering diarrhea and pneumonia -- may be exhausted shortly. The loss of electrical power is crippling water and sewage treatment plants, putting millions more children at risk of water-borne diseases and contaminated water. And women and children are directly in the line of fire, exposed to the emotional shock of combat and the physical risk of exploitation, abuse, injury or death.
If significant assistance is not provided quickly, thousands of innocent lives will be lost. In particular, women and children need protection not just from military violence, but also from sexual abuse, displacement, and the lack of access to water, food, hygiene and health care caused by the nation's decimated infrastructure. Children under 15 years old, who make up almost 45 percent of the population, are the most vulnerable as conditions begin to deteriorate. They face starvation, disease, displacement, trauma and death as a consequence of war.
Save the Children works to protect and assist Iraqi children
At this early stage, it's impossible to predict how long the military action may last or how severe the consequences for families may be. However, Save the Children knows first-hand that the longer the hostilities go on, the more children and families will be displaced from their homes, losing critical access to what few services still exist. The United Nations has projected that up to 1.5 million Iraqi refugees driven into neighboring countries, such as Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey, may need immediate assistance during the current military action.
Save the Children began working in Iraq in 1991 following the Gulf War. Since that time, Save the Children has been the only international non-governmental organization to maintain a continuous program in the north of the country working with Kurdish refugees, where 60 percent of families live in poverty. Programs have focused on providing children and communities with education, water and transportation.
Now that war has begun, we are preparing to expand our operations to provide protection and assistance to needy Iraqi children. These actions include setting up operations in Kuwait and stockpiling relief supplies; partnering with other relief agencies to ensure efficiency and coverage; organizing activities to assist potential refugees in Jordan and Turkey; providing food, water, shelter and health care; and protecting children by providing safe spaces, working to prevent their exploitation, and advocating for their rights.
Women and Children Protection Act introduced in Congress
These essential efforts to protect women and children in war and conflict are rooted in Save the Children's One World, One Wish campaign. A key component of this campaign, the Women and Children in Armed Conflict Act of 2003, will be introduced in Congress this spring. If signed into law, the bill will ensure that -- in addition to providing food, shelter and access to health care -- our government also will assess the protection needs of women and children who are vulnerable to violence, rape, exploitation and forced military servitude in times of war, and address those needs at the community level.
As most of the world watches the war in Iraq unfold from a distance and witnesses the devastation visited on the children and their families from a distance, Save the Children hopes you will lend your support in some way -- or many. Please visit the links on the left side of this page to see how you can help.