12/14/2012 11:11 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Children in Mali: The 'Little Ones' Bear the Brunt of Current Conflict

A Malian proverb dictates that "those who accomplish great things in life always pay attention to the little ones," a maxim that surely applies to the current situation in northern Mali. "The little ones" could mean the details that have so far been neglected in the plans for a military intervention. But it could also refer to children in Mali, the "little ones" without whom the country has no future at all.

Children are bearing the brunt of the current conflict in Mali, a country where 47 percent of the population is under 15. The international community should care about the plight of children in Mali for moral, legal and pragmatic reasons. Ultimately the latter is most compelling. The United States and partner governments must act now to prevent irreversible damage to children's development and, by implication, the future Malian economy.

Mali is a major smuggling route for drugs, weapons and people, and the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) makes the stabilization of Mali synonymous with winning the "war on terror." It is impossible for a failed state to be a cooperative partner and, in the interest of long-term security, it is crucial that Mali's neighbors and international actors promote sustainable development. Children who are under-educated and malnourished during key developmental stages won't develop the physical and psychological strength to form a productive workforce, and the current conflict has the potential to decimate Mali's economy for decades to come.

The international media has made much of the issue of child soldiers, with the BBC, Reuters and Human Rights Watch reporting that Islamist groups are recruiting and trafficking children to fight. In the long run, however, the collateral effects of war on children may be an even greater cause for concern. Displacement, loss of access to education and insufficient access to food will all have serious long-term developmental consequences for an already-struggling population.

According to the seminal 1996 Machel Report on the effects of war on children "armed conflict is a major public health hazard that cannot be ignored." Hundreds of children have been recruited as soldiers or directly injured by the conflict in Mali, but many thousands more will indirectly suffer the effects of war and displacement.

Reports suggest that recruitment of child soldiers, a war crime punishable in the International Criminal Court, is widespread in northern Mali. Moral outrage and legal wrangling aside, studies have shown that the use of child soldiers is both a symptom of and a contributing factor to long-term social deterioration.

But the horror of child-soldiers may be eclipsed by the long-term developmental consequences of denial of education and malnutrition -- while rape, killing and the recruitment of child soldiers are grave crimes, the number of children affected is limited, while hundreds of thousands of Malian youths will suffer the effects of school closures, limited food and forced flight.

Forced school closures have affected around 300,000 children in northern Mali. In early September IDMC reported that 80 percent of teachers in northern Mali had fled, and more continue to leave each week. Moctar Mariko of the Malian Association of Human Rights said in a statement last week that "the right to education [in northern Mali] is non-existent." For the 240,000 children who remain in the north, koranic schools are fast becoming the only option.

Pediatric health is also a major concern in northern Mali. In 2006, the Malian ministry of health declared that 38 percent of Malian children were classified as stunted, and the number is sure to rise in the wake of the current conflict. Children who are denied adequate nutrition in early years often suffer severe developmental defects in the long run, and the effects of childhood malnutrition on the productivity of the future Malian workforce are bound to be dire.

The U.S., France and other partner governments can seek to mitigate the effects of conflict on children today by immediately freeing up funds to meet the needs of the 2012 United Nations Mali Global Appeal, 36 percent funded as of November. They can attempt to reduce child recruitment by ensuring that ECOWAS and Malian soldiers are trained in humanitarian principles and child protection issues. In the long run, they can engage in long-term development assistance in Mali, giving priority to education and pediatric health.

Mali is not a puzzle to be solved, and policy makers must make tough choices faced with the plethora of demands on the international community's money, time and resources. Furthermore, the political turmoil in Bamako and limited access to the north complicate the delivery of humanitarian programs. But there are U.N. and NGO programs on the ground attempting to mitigate the humanitarian impacts of the conflict. With adequate funding, their impact would be much greater.

Caring about the plight of children in Mali is not just the right thing to do. Immediate child protection measures and longer term development assistance should be seen as a set of pragmatic policy choices intended to build a stable partner for the United States, the European Union and neighboring African countries. As the Machel Report concluded in 1996, "children are both our reason to struggle to eliminate the worst aspects of warfare, and our best hope for succeeding at it." Policy makers must keep this in mind as they hash out the details of an intervention over the weeks and months to come.