They’ve only known war: 87m children under seven whose brain development is at risk

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies, Safe schools

Iraqi siblings Naem, four, Aya, two, and six-year-old Duna are displaced from Ramadi and now living in Kirkuk Picture: UNICEF/Mackenzie


Almost 87 million children could be left with “deep-rooted emotional scars” because they have spent their whole lives in conflict zones.

The brain development of children in war zones is put at risk and they could face lifelong consequences, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said today.

Figures show that more than 86.7 million children under the age of seven have known nothing but conflict.

UNICEF Chief of Early Child Development Pia Britto said: “In addition to the immediate physical threats that children in crises face, they are also at risk of deep-rooted emotional scars.

A Palestinian girl stands outside her destroyed family home in Gaza City in 2015 Picture: UNICEF/El Baba

“Conflict robs children of their safety, family and friends, play and routine. Yet these are all elements of childhood that give children the best possible chance of developing fully and learning effectively, enabling them to contribute to their economies and societies, and building strong and safe communities when they reach adulthood.”

A report by A World at School showed that more than 80 million children have had their education disrupted by conflicts and natural disasters in the past year.

In the midst of horror and despair, they need safe schools, a future and hope. Yet less than 2% of all humanitarian aid in 2015 went towards education.

That’s why Theirworld – the children’s charity behind A World at School – launched the #SafeSchools campaign to ensure leaders meeting at the World Humanitarian Summit in May commit to set up a new platform to fund education in emergencies.

Public pressure is needed to make sure they deliver – and you can tell them to take action by signing the #SafeSchools petition. Just click on the button below.

UNICEF said one in 11 of all children aged six or younger around the world has spent the most critical period of their brain development growing up in conflict.

A child is born with 253 million functioning neurons – but whether the brain reaches its full adult capacity of around one billion connectable neurons depends in large part on early childhood development. 

This includes a chance to grow and play in a safe and healthy environment.

South Sudanese three-year-old Nyamal at a camp for displaced people in Bor Picture: UNICEF/Holt

Children living in conflict are often exposed to extreme trauma, putting them at risk of living in a state of toxic stress.

That inhibits brain cell connections, with significant life-long consequences to their cognitive, social and physical development.

Ms Britto added: “That is why we need to invest more to provide children and caregivers with critical supplies and services including learning materials, psychosocial support, and safe, child-friendly spaces that can help restore a sense of childhood in the midst of conflict.”

More news

See all news