KATHMANDU, 26 July (IRIN) - With some 400 children killed in the nine-year Maoist conflict, it is clear that it is the country's young population that is most vulnerable, living constantly in fear and insecurity, a new report by Amnesty International (AI) said.
According to the report entitled "Nepal: Children Caught in the Conflict" launched on Tuesday, children were at risk from both the Maoist militants and security forces. Both parties had done little to ensure a safe environment for the children, who had been deprived of all the privileges of a normal childhood - especially in the villages where a heavy presence of either the army or Maoist militant activities continued, the watchdog group said.
The organisation said that despite being a responsible state body, the security forces had failed to recognise the difference between adult and child fighters by getting involved in extrajudicial executions.
It remarked that the Maoists had also failed to act responsibly towards children. In one of the most deadly Maoist attacks to date, seven children were killed on 6 June along with 31 adults when the bus they were travelling in struck a landmine in Chitwan, 100 km west of the capital Kathmandu.
"If the trend of crimes against children is allowed to continue, we can not even imagine what shape the violations will take place," Pradeep Pokhrel, chairman of AI Nepal, said.
During the first half of 2004 alone, nearly 92 children were killed by mines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs). Besides the killings and heavy casualties, more children were being pushed towards impoverished lives and suffering from a series of physical and mental health problems, the report added.
Moreover, a large number of children were being forced to quit education due to the constant closure of schools as well as abductions by rebels in the villages to join either their military activities or enroll in their indoctrination programmes, said the activists.
"Children have to face immense pressure, their lives have been affected so negatively," remarked Rajesh Ghimire, human rights activist from AI.
The education sector, which is already very limited in Nepal, has been particularly badly affected by the conflict, resulting in many more children being unable to access their right to schooling. More children are dropping out of schools while some of their parents send them to the cities for their own safety.
But this trend has only resulted in the sexual and labour exploitation of the children, claimed the report. Strategies used by families to protect children from recruitment also raised very serious child rights concerns. Children were often taken out of school for fear of recruitment, while some were sent away to other districts, often unaccompanied, explained the report.
"In addition, there have been reports of girls being married very young as parents fear that if their daughter is taken away by the Maoists for some time she will no longer be marriageable," it added. While there were no reliable figures on the number of children involved in military activities, AI believed that both the state and rebels were using the children as messengers to spy on each other's activities.
"A significant number of children carry bombs and ammunition, while a smaller number are engaged in actual fighting. Many children are also forced to act as porters, dig roads and bunkers, cook food and carry out other menial tasks for the Maoists," stated the AI report.
Among the worst violation cases are those incidents of young girls being raped. The report recounted one incident in which a young girl of 15 had been gang raped by members of the security forces somewhere in midwestern Nepal in early 2004. During an interrogation, some of the soldiers took her to a cowshed and raped her.
In still another incident, a girl of 11 was raped by some members of a vigilante group known as the 'village defence force', a government-sponsored group to help the security forces fight against the rebels.
But such groups serve only to increase the incidents of abuse - including the sexual violence against the children - the report asserted.
As one of the few reports focusing on children in conflict, AI hopes to draw international attention to the atrocities and abuses against children, putting pressure on both the Maoists and security forces to respect humanitarian laws.
"Such unlawful action and violation of children's rights need to be constantly exposed so that there is mass pressure from citizens on both the state and rebels to adhere to humanitarian laws," AI's Pokhrel contended.
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