Are children paying the highest price of inaction in Afghanistan?
A version of this opinion piece was published in The Advertiser on December 10.
The sweet little faces of two Afghan children who have seen too much have been swimming before my eyes recently.
With gut-wrenching stories of kids starving to death hitting the headlines, I can’t help but wonder about their fate.
At just seven, Maha* dreamed of becoming a doctor. She’d witnessed so much pain and suffering in her short life after fleeing her home, that she wanted to help other children.
Then there was a bubbly boy called Amir*, 5, who engulfed me in a hug when I entered a child friendly space in Kabul. He’d never met me before – but immediately grabbed my hand and showed me a drawing of friends he’d left behind.
These were among children I met in 2013 on deployment as an aid worker, supporting the rollout of education and health programs.
Kids just like yours and mine.
Kids unlucky enough to live in what's been called ‘The worst place in the world to be born’. If it wasn’t bad enough back then, life has now become unbearable in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
There are over 6 million people, including 1 million children under 10, who don’t know when their next meal is coming from. Without immediate life-saving action, they will starve to death.
Keep in mind that starvation is an incredibly painful and cruel way to die. A young body becomes ravaged by infection and internal organs start to shut down.
Making matters worse, hundreds of local health facilities were shuttered due to the lack of international funding. That means families with children suffering from malnutrition must travel farther to get care - if they can afford the fuel.
The lucky ones make it to a hospital. But like eight Hazara orphans whose bodies were found on the outskirts of Kabul, it’s often too late. Their broken bodies have already lost the battle. Many more will perish out of sight. Aid agencies are working to help as many children as possible, but the scale of the challenge is enormous.
With a brutal winter at Afghanistan’s doorstep, many families will have to choose between migration or starvation. There are record numbers of internally displaced people forced to flee their homes, many of the 700,000 living in makeshift camps with only flimsy fabric as protection.
As the snow sets in, many remote villages and towns will be cut off for weeks, even months. Time is ticking. We must get cash, food and medicine to these families now, or it will be too late.
The first 1000 days of life - from conception until the age of 2 - are crucial in setting up a child for a healthy future. If a child does not get the right and nutritious food, the physical and mental impairment is irreversible.
In Afghanistan, one in two children under 5 are projected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Those who don’t perish may be condemned to a life-sentence of health problems. If you think about it - in 15-20 years’ time, half of the country’s workforce could be physically and mentally impaired.
A combination of factors is making life in Afghanistan miserable. Drought, soaring food and fuel prices, conflict and economic collapse have pushed many families to a state of despair. In my years of work with children affected by conflict, mothers often open up about the excruciating decisions they must make for their children.
I often stare in their hollow eyes as they tell me of choosing which child gets to eat today, which child has to quit school to beg or find work, which girl is forced to marry young so there’s one less mouth to feed.
I learned the hard way that often when a family is starved, children don’t only face hunger and disease, but also a host/raft of protection risks and traumatic memories that affect their mental health.
World Vision and other humanitarian organisations are ready to act, but are hindered by UNSC sanctions. This has put bans on financial engagement with the Taliban, and resulted in money and asset freezes as well as cash shortages across the country. Time is running out to safeguard the humanitarian response through an exemption that allows the provision of supplies and services, including financial transactions, to continue.
The world is grappling with a conundrum. On one hand, we do not want to see a failed state in Afghanistan. On the other hand, how can we work with or around a Taliban leadership? But the missing question that seems to have eluded the UNSC is: “What about the 38 million Afghans stuck in Afghanistan?” What we need is global leadership motivated by compassion and humanity. At the very least, we need the UNSC to provide a more efficient and effective flow of resources into the country.
The cost of inaction will be measured by the lives of thousands of innocent children. Will Maha and Amir be among them?
Nadine Haddad is World Vision Australia’s Senior Policy Advisor, Conflict and Fragility
*The names of Maha and Amir have been changed for privacy reasons
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