Childhood is a social construct and every society identifies "childhood" as an age distinct from "adulthood" in terms of role and responsibility. This conventional socialization implies that adults are responsible for organizing the ways to lead their children towards adult competence and maturity. Thus, in the line social hierarchy children occupy a status that renders them less influential than adults and reduces their area of action. While that is true at large, however, children aren't mere silent receptacles to adult patterns of behaviour as they aren't only able to contribute to their own development but also influence others.
The scope of their contribution and influence will not only depend on their personal abilities but also on the opportunities and constraints that exist in their environment. If the environment is supportive to child development, then there are greater chances of children participation and involvement and, in case, if situation is not favorable because of violence and conflict then there are additional constraints upon children participation. For example, they may be forced into various "unsolicited" activities or out of fear for their safety and security parents may strictly limit their engagement with society beyond their home. Nevertheless, the disorder of "social cohesion" caused due to conflict often generates additional possibilities and additional obligations for children to contribute their thoughts, innovations, and energies in the wider development of the society.
There are many theories that appreciate the fact that metamorphosis of mental, physical and social abilities does not follow a universal sequence in accordance with biological factors. Rather, the development of such abilities emerges due to vibrant interaction of the biological and the social or cultural inducements. The process of biological or neurological maturity provides a configuration to individual child development that is then informed and structured by everyday practices within specific socio-political contexts. These theories propose that in conflict-affected places, children are usually obliged to share additional responsibilities and face new challenges – a situation that compels them to perform ahead of their age. It gives them strength to struggle for life and balances their emotions extraordinarily. Many times they may engage themselves as caregivers, breadwinners and as providers of emotional support, even to adults that in most settings is considered as specialized "adult" responsibility.
For example, in Kashmir thousands of young "orphan' children felt compromised between career and family. As a result, they discontinue their education and start earning for their families – a decision that needs enough courage and maturity. Similarly, the growing participation of young children in freedom protests can be quoted as another example. Social scientists have been continuously expressing their concern in this regard as children participation in protests, according to them, is something which children of Kashmir do beyond the local social construction of childhood. Here, I must make it clear that I referred this example not to appreciate it, rather, to highlight the unexpected psychological and behavioral transformation among the young children that empowers them even over the fear of life.
However, it is not true about all children. Therefore, it is important to avoid the suggestion that because some children show resilience and ingenuity in the face of extreme adversity, then all children can or should do so. Because in most of the cases children become the passive recipient of the violence and chances of "trauma" and "physical damage" dominate. The popular ideas about children's victimhood and passivity in the face of violence have been mostly reinforced by the images employed by many humanitarians. There are, of course, natural reasons for this. Since children have smaller stature and are relatively inexperienced, they are liable to get easily exposed to vulnerability of conflict to an extent greater than "experienced" adults. Thus their protection needs are likely to be greater.
All situations that hinder their "childhood" and insecure their mental, physical and sociological developments are seen as adverse, even oppressive, by definition. Therefore, children living in armed conflict are inevitably viewed as victims: prevented from enjoying the kind of childhood imagined for them. While accepting the chances of trauma, feelings of frustration and helplessness and without refuting the idea that the children fall easy victims of conflict, we should not undermine the strategies children employ to deal with their adverse circumstances in order to maintain their material, psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing. In considering the child development and protection, it is important to avoid the assumption that the children are characteristically vulnerable because such rationale would simply befuddle us from the ways in which children may express their strengths and the abilities to adopt and adjust with adversities of conflict.
(Bilal Ahmad Malik is a Research Scholar at Centre of central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir)