During armed conflict, children with disabilities are caught in a vicious cycle of violence, social polarization, deteriorating services and deepening poverty. Global estimates suggest there are between 93 million and 150 million children with disabilities under the age of 15.
Given that disability is often not reported due to stigma there is reason to believe actual prevalence could be much higher. Although efforts to ensure the fulfilment of their rights have improved, girls and boys with disabilities continue to remain among the most marginalized and excluded segment of the population. This is amplified during situations of armed conflict. The barriers to full participation they face on a day-to-day basis are intensified and compounded when infrastructure is destroyed, and services and systems are compromised and made inaccessible. This results in the further exclusion and marginalization of children with disabilities, and prevents them from accessing schooling, health and psychosocial support, or a means of escape from conflict.
When systems and services break down, children are also left more susceptible to violence. A review of studies shows that children with disabilities are more likely than other children to experience violence, including sexual violence, and that this vulnerability is heightened in humanitarian crises.
The practice of institutionalization of children with disabilities also increases their exposure to violence and further complicates the task of protecting civilians.
History provides several examples such as the Nazi T-4 programme of extermination of adults and children with disabilities, and the slaughter of civilians with disabilities at a psychiatric hospital during the Rwandan genocide. In fact, the existence of clustered settlements, such as psychiatric hospitals, orphanages, social care homes and other institutions has led to the use of people with disabilities as human targets or shields by some combatants.
Injuries sustained by many children during armed conflict may also lead to long-term impairments. There are six grave violations of children’s rights and protection in armed conflict that are on the agenda of the United Nations (UN) Security Council; killing and maiming, recruitment and use of children, rape or other sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools or hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access. The grave violations can result in physical and psychological injuries that can lead to long-term impairments.
Two key treaties - the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict - protect the rights of children with disabilities. Although the rights and principles set forth in these Conventions apply in situations of armed conflict, they are all too often eroded by the violence, stress, hunger, social breakdown and poverty that armed conflict brings.
Governments around the world have committed themselves to respect, promote, and fulfil the rights of children with disabilities, including in situations of armed conflict, and progress is being made. Efforts by a broad range of actors to implement the CRPD, CRC and other human rights instruments include the development of standards to address the rights and needs of persons with disabilities in humanitarian crises, and guidance on making humanitarian response, development and peacebuilding more inclusive. Efforts to improve the collection and use of data concerning children and adults with disabilities are also underway.
Yet, as this discussion paper makes clear, much more needs to be done. Investments in disability-inclusive humanitarian action and recovery from crises will pay off, contributing towards a dividend of peace built on greater equality, tolerance and justice.