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The impact of explosive violence on children in Pakistan

In Pakistan, explosive violence against children is characterised by the diverse nature of its perpetrators: ethnonationalist separatist groups in Sindh and Balochistan, Islamist groups operating in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Indian army in Kashmir and US drone strikes in the former Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). It is, therefore, no surprise that Pakistan ranks the third most dangerous country from explosive violence globally for children [1].  

Explosive Violence in Pakistan
According to AOAV’s data, the majority of incidents of explosive violence against children take place in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, followed by Kashmir and the former FATA. Militants in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region and former FATA base themselves in residential areas, meaning that attacks by government security forces frequently result in the injury and death of civilians. Deprivation and weak governance has made the former FATA region particularly fertile ground for Al Qaeda who have set up bases in the area.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)
Overall, IEDs are the most harmful form of explosive weaponry used in Pakistan, and are responsible for 38% of all child deaths and injuries from explosive weapons. They are the weapon of choice for militants active in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and former FATA provinces.

In April 2018, 14 people, including 4 children, were reportedly killed when a passenger vehicle struck a roadside IED in the Gudar area. ISIS-K and Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan (an umbrella organisation of militant groups, abbreviated to the TPP) both claimed responsibility for the attack.

The deaths of children in such violence did not seem to deter these non-state actors. Between 2011 and 2015, AOAV research shows that IEDs were used repeatedly to target highly populated areas in Pakistan such as markets, places of worship and public gatherings. While reports frequently do not specify number of children among the casualties, such targeting of populated areas makes it highly likely that children are among them.  

IEDs are frequently used in the carrying out of suicide attacks. Over the past nine years, suicide attacks have remained at a high level in Pakistan and were responsible for 32% of all civilian deaths and injuries from explosive violence in the country. These stark figures makes Pakistan one of the world’s worst affected countries from suicide attacks.

Given their often indiscriminate use, children have been directly and purposefully targeted in these attacks. For example, in March 2016 an IED suicide attack on a children’s play area left more than 70 dead, including at least 29 children. 

Landmines & Explosive Remnants of War (ERW)
Pakistan has the second largest stockpile of mines, an estimated six million, second only to Russia. Between 1999 and 2018 the Landmine Monitor recorded 4,755 people killed and injured by mines and ERW in Pakitan. In 2019 alone, there were 136 casualties from improvised antipersonnel landmines. Most of the mines were planted by militant groups affiliated to the TTP and Balochi insurgents.

In 2019, ten Pakistani children were reportedly killed and injured by ERW, however, due to the difficulties in reporting and monitoring such casualties in Pakistan, these numbers are likely to be far higher. Research from Pakistan’s Red Crescent has shown that young boys are especially at risk of injury from unexploded ordinances (UXOs). Boys typically carry out work that places them at increased risk, such as shepherding and scrap metal collection. For instance, in Lower Dir district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a teenage boy was working at a scrapyard when a piece of iron that he was handling exploded and killed him instantaneously. This piece of UXO would have been indistinguishable from the hundreds of other pieces of iron he usually worked with.

Drone Strikes
Aerial bombardments and drone attacks in Pakistan have killed and injured hundreds of children. On the 17th of June 2004, the US launched an aerial campaign lasting well over a decade- in the very first US airstrike, two children were killed. According to reports, more children were killed by US drone strikes during the presidency of George Bush (2001-2009) than in any other presidency. It is estimated that 112 children were killed during the Bush administration, equating to child mortalities in one third of all airstrikes. During Obama’s first year in office more drone strikes were launched than in both terms of Bush’s presidency, however these strikes killed a smaller percentage of civilians per attack. More recently, in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, there were less than 5 strikes with an estimated 0 to 3 civilians killed.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that between 172 and 207 children have been killed by US drone strikes since 2004.

Impact on children
According to data collected by AOAV, between 2011 and 2019, 1,134 children were killed and injured by explosive violence. The presence and influence of militant armed groups, combined with challenging terrain, make many areas of Pakistan impenetrable for journalists seeking to document civilian harm from explosive violence. Thus, the real number of children killed and injured by explosive weapons is likely to be much higher.  

Figure 1 shows the fall in the use of explosive violence against children over the last decade, indicative of the improving security situation in Pakistan. However, the 32% rise in child casualties in 2019 is deeply concerning. Even more concerning is that over half (51%) of incidents against children in 2019 were perpetrated by state actors: 2019 saw heightened tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and the region suffered intensive cross-boarder shelling. Over the last decade, the territorial conflict in Kashmir resulted in at least 179 child casualties[2].

Figure 1: Data on Pakistan collected from AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor

Child Soldiers
Militants in Pakistan have not only targeted children in suicide attacks, but have also recruited children as suicide bombers. In 2019 the UN verified the use of a girl and 45 boys, some as young as 8, in combat roles, planting IEDs, and carrying out suicide attacks. In January 2017, the TTP made a video of children being shown how to carry out suicide attacks. The TTP and splinter groups were charged by the UN as being responsible for over half of the grave violations against children in Pakistan. Child poverty is often exploited in much of this violence, with militant groups offering $25 to $50 to children drop off packages carrying bombs with timers. The recent use of child soldiers in Pakistan is not without precedence: back in 2011 there were 22 incidents reported where armed groups used children to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These children included girls as young as 8 and 9.

The chaos unleashed by the use of explosive weapons creates a breeding ground for child recruitment. Displaced children without parental guardians or a home to go back to are often targeted by militant groups be recruited as child soldiers.

Through the destruction of their lived environment, explosive weapons have displaced thousands of children. Pakistan is home to an estimated 500,000 children who are internally displaced due to conflict and natural disaster – and it hosts another 1 million refugees from Afghanistan. Displacement from explosive violence sees families struggling to find school places for their children. In many cases, children cannot be enrolled in a new school without their parents providing a school leaving certificate from the school they last attended, which are frequently destroyed or left behind as people flee violence.

Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school, representing 44% of the total population in this age group. This is, in part, because of economic and socio-cultural factors as well as gaps in service provision – but it is also due to insecurity generated by explosive weapons.

In a report on violation against children in 2018 the UN Secretary, António Guterres, expressed serious concern at “the reported spike in the number of child casualties and attacks on schools, including the targeting of girls’ education”. That year there were 34 attacks on schools in Pakistan, injuring 26 students using IEDs and grenades. In a singular evening in 2018, twelve schools (eight girls schools and four boys schools) were attacked by bombs and set on fire overnight. The incident took place in an area where TTP militants who are opposed to girls’ education, are active. Such violence instils a sense of fear and insecurity in attending school, disrupting the education of hundreds of thousands of children, particularly girls. Girls schools have been deliberately targeted my militant groups; 14 attacks targeting girls’ education occurred during a single day in August 2018 in Chilas, Gilgit-Baltistan.

AOAV data reveals that between 2011-2019 at least 428 civilians, including 66 children, have been killed and injured in explosive weapon attacks on schools in Pakistan. In Kashmir, education has been particularly impacted by cross-border shelling. The Pakistani news network PKKH reported that hundreds of schools were forced to close due to shelling, and, during a typical school year as AOAV has reported, up to 50% of the curriculum remains untaught in some areas. Poor mental health is also a consequence for many children who are too afraid to attend school because of intermittent shelling.

Despite a marked improvement over the last decade, the security situation in Pakistan remains precarious. Explosive violence, or even the fear of explosive violence, has left many children with life-long disabilities, psychological trauma, and unable to access much needed support – all of which effect their likelihood of attending school.

Child education has been directly and indirectly effected by explosive violence in Pakistan. Attempts have been made to counter the deliberate targeting of educational institutions and Pakistan has been called upon to join the Safe Schools Declaration – so far, it has failed to do so. 

[1] Based on AOAV data on the incidence of explosive violence with child casualties between 2011 and 2019.

[2] In Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

For more research on the impact of explosive violence on children, please visit AOAV’s category page on this matter here.