The Theft of Childhood: Protecting Our Children From Ideological Warfare
Around the world, millions of childhoods are under threat from war. Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Protecting children isn’t something that humankind has historically been very good at.
Take World War II and the Holocaust: an already horrific period in human history was an era in which innocent children were specifically persecuted. The Nazis advocated for the targeted mass murder of children in order to prevent the next generation of ethnic minorities and ideological opponents from growing up and having children of their own.
The Nazis and their collaborators killed as many as 1.5 million children before the end of World War II. This number included over a million Jewish children, and tens of thousands of Romani children, as well as children with physical and mental disabilities, children living in institutions, Polish children, and children residing in the occupied Soviet Union. Those who managed to evade capture or execution often died anyway from starvation or exposure.
Children within German-occupied territories lost their childhoods in a different way. In 1937, every non-Jewish boy in Germany was required to join the Hitler Youth. The organization functioned to indoctrinate society’s most vulnerable people in racist, Nazi ideology; and train them to fight faithfully as a Nazi German soldier when they came of age. In parallel, girls were groomed for domestic life as the wives of these soldiers by the League of German Girls.
Since the end of World War II, humankind has come a long way toward safeguarding children’s rights. In 1992, UNESCO created a program to offer a future to vulnerable children through education. Since its establishment, over $40 million dollars (US) has been raised in private funds, and these have been fully and directly invested into immediate support for over 400 projects in 97 countries worldwide.
It is estimated today that more than 300,000 children have been enrolled in militia groups and armies, and have been forced to carry a gun. Half of those they kill are other children. Whether it is in Afghanistan, Iraq, or in conflict-ridden areas of Africa, UNESCO has played a vital role in providing education and relief. As UNESCO Director-General, I made it my mission to protect all children worldwide through improved education and the prevention of terrorist financing.
While I was at its helm, UNESCO developed the only UN Holocaust education program for children, teaching the historic story and linking it to modern human rights abuses, Holocaust denial, antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism. Furthermore, in 2015, UNESCO launched, in partnership with the US, the first ever effort to fight violent extremism through education.
Nobody is born violent or extremist, and we can help children — through inclusive, quality education — to learn to respect all human life.
Sadly, the world still has a long way to go. Cases such as Shamima Begum, the British-born 15-year-old girl who was radicalized by ISIS online, are evidence that dangerous narratives and ideological indoctrination are still a problem, just as they were in Nazi Germany.
That is why I joined the Supervisory Board of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC).
BYHMC is named after the Babyn Yar ravine — a Nazi execution site in Kiev, Ukraine – and documents and commemorates genocides, including the Holocaust. BYHMC aims to develop an educational platform to teach current and future generations about the crimes of regimes such as the Third Reich, and use their horrific examples to ignite discussion of human rights in societies where the fundamental values of peace and equality are threatened.
It is the responsibility of all in a society to protect our children from such malicious forces; our schools, our families, our communities, and our governments each have a role to play. We need to equip our children, who live in the first age of unrestricted accesses to the Internet, to think critically about the messages they are receiving, and where they are receiving them from.
Irina Bokova is the Former Director-General of UNESCO and a Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Supervisory Board Member.