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World Day for War Orphans

By Michael Evans - 06 Jan 2013 13:9:0 GMT
World Day for War Orphans

Orphans Image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The World Day of War Orphans was initiated by the French organisation, SOS Enfants en Detresses. Held on 6th January each year, this special day enables the International Community to recognise the plight of a particularly vulnerable group.

The usual definition of an orphan is a child who has no surviving parent to care for him or her, having lost both parents, either as a result of bereavement or by being abandoned.

In the developed world orphans are relatively rare, since most children can reasonably expect both parents to survive their childhood, but in countries that have been and are subjected to wars and great epidemics such as AIDS, there are significant numbers of orphans.

It is estimated, for instance, that World War II created millions of orphans I Europe, with 300,000 orphans in Poland and 200,000 in Yugoslavia alone.

Today in Afghanistan, after nearly 30 years of fighting, there are now over two million orphaned children with over 600,000 sleeping on the streets. Over a million suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and the prevalence of the use of anti-personnel weaponry has resulted in over 400,000 children being maimed by land mines.

A quarter of all children in Afghanistan die before the age of five, which according to UNICEF figures is the fourth highest level in the world. Of those who continue to survive, one in ten is severely malnourished and more than half suffer from stunted growth.

There is a similarly bleak picture in other parts of the world. In the continent of Africa over 34 million children, or nearly 12%, are orphans either as a result of war or epidemics such as AIDS.

In recent years the proportion of civilian casualties in armed conflicts has increased dramatically. This is now estimated to be about 90%, half of whom are children. In the last ten years alone some 2 million children have died as a direct result of armed conflict. Many others have witnessed parents and relatives being butchered in the most appalling circumstances.

Around 20 million children have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict or human rights violations and it is estimated that 300,000 boys and girls under the age of 18 are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide.

In Northern Uganda, for instance, war has raged for 18 years and has left the population in abject poverty. More than 1.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes and farmers who were formerly self-sufficient are now forced to live in camps for internally displaced persons. Schools, homes, villages and families have all been destroyed and nobody knows how many have died.

The UK charity War Child quotes one particular case of a Ugandan girl called Agnes. Now 18 she was 10 years old and working in her family's vegetable garden when rebels abducted her. Her parents were killed and she was separated from the remaining members of her family.

She was 11 when she was forced to kill another child who had tried to escape from the rebels and at the age of 12 she was raped when a rebel commander took her as one of his wives.

When she was 13 she finally managed to escape and miraculously a few weeks later she was reunited with what remained of her family. In spite of all that she has suffered, she could be regarded as one of the lucky ones. Although she is an orphan, at least she has some family and the War Child charity is paying for her education so she hopes to rebuild her life. Her goal is to become a nurse and she is now looking towards the future with optimism.

This is not by any means the usual pattern for orphans. All over the world orphans usually have a very raw deal. Russia is just one example, but it is by no means exceptional. It is estimated that there are 650,000 children in Russian orphanages. As is the generally accepted pattern worldwide, the state looks after them until the age of 16, but after that they are on their own. Their prospects are poor, with 40% usually ending up homeless, 20% turning to crime and 10% committing suicide. 

It should not be like this. Take the case of Michaela DePrince.

Michaela was born in Sierra Leone in 1995 and became an orphan after both her parents were killed in the Civil War. While still a toddler she endured some horrendous experiences and was sent to an orphanage. One day she found a magazine with a picture of a ballerina and she immediately decided that this was what she wanted to be.

When she was four years old she had the good fortune to be adopted. She was taken to America and enrolled in the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia.In 2012 she graduated from American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York and joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem. On 19 July 2012 she made her professional debut performance in the role of Gulnare in the South African premiere of Le Corsaire.

Obviously Michaela was incredibly lucky, but tragically there are many thousands of other children who will remain in orphanages or continue to live as street children, with little hope of ever achieving what they are capable of.

World Day for War Orphans is a day to remember these children. Every one of them is precious and they all deserve a future that will enable them to fulfil their dreams.

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