By Violet Chaudoir
For me, the sign of an excellent event is one which reminds you why you choose St Andrews as a place to study, to dedicate four years of your life. Synergy: Health of a Child In Conflict exemplifies such an event as it epitomises collaboration, intellectual rigour and altruism, and resulted in leaving the event astonished by what the teachers and students of this town have to offer.
The Synergy event was the brainchild of both UNICEF St Andrews and Protocol Magazine, a student-led online publication which focuses on international human rights issues, a pairing I only hope to see more from in the future. The evening was a structured panel discussion, mediated by Michael Tyra (an International Relations PhD student) and containing three lectures, each lasting 10-15 minutes. Each lecture introduced and approached the evening’s focus, (the health of children in conflict) from a unique perspective, as each speaker was a specialised in a different branch of academia.
The first talk was delivered by Professor of International Relations Ali Watson, who spoke about the central consequences and issues surrounding children’s exposure to conflict: displacement, food scarcity, inadequate health infrastructure, exposure to sexual violence (a concern applicable to both genders), extreme poverty and individual’s daily physical and mental health. The lecture addressed the benefits and pitfalls of NGO or INGO intervention as communities can be painted with a ‘victim narrative’ and intervention can reduce the agency and efficiency of local communities in the capacity to respond to conflict. When the question a child’s health is mentioned alongside conflict, often the issues of international warfare, civil war, or refugee crosses come to mind first. Watson, however, expanded the definition of children in conflict as she noted that a country and community’s internal racism, sexism, prejudices and discrimination can inflict equally devastating violence and distress, in environments which on the outset are ‘peaceful’.
The second talk was led by Dr Damien Williams a lecturer in public-health sciences for the School of Medicine. While there was a narrower focus to his speech, it was by no means less engaging. Williams spoke about how trauma during one’s childhood, whether prompted by warfare or abuse, directly influences how a young person develops through adulthood, how their mental and physical growth is impaired. A key term which Williams referred to was Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which address how various forms of trauma during youth can affect one’s long term development. The types of experiences which fall into the category of ACE’s, which Williams listed, are abuse, family dysfunction, neglect, peer violence, witnessing community or collective violence. The discussion led to how these experiences have the capacity to get ‘under the skin’, as they can influence a child’s neurodevelopment, impairing their social cognition and even triggering various genes associated with mental health. Trauma’s ability to directly influence the biology of a child, to leave scars that aren’t necessarily visible, can later cause poor performance in education, being a less production member of society, and eventually social exclusion and difficulty. The worst result of ACE’s was suicide, which provided the severe reminder that what occurs in childhood is able to impact one’s entire life. Lastly, Williams spoke about epigenetics, a fascinating area of biology which is concerned with intergenerational experiences; how trauma and health of a parent can directly influence their children and even grandchildren. While research is continually being conducted on ACE’s, this research is limited to only a few areas of the world and the awareness of the existence of ACE’s and their effects, is even less publically known not only in the UK but internationally. To conclude, Williams pressed the point that in order to improve global and local public health services, more awareness on ACE’s and the real consequences of contact with trauma eventually led to better practical solutions and coping mechanisms.
The last speaker was Dr Mattia Fumanti, a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology who contextualised these previous conversations with a detailed case study on the effect of colonialisation and the Herero and Nama genocide (1904-7) and the struggle for independence in Namibia. The talk was based upon Fumanti’s decade long fieldwork and published research based on the country. It provided a brief chronology the last 100 years of the country’s politics and history and how modern 21st century society and the Namibian identity has been affected by these hostilities. The lecture focused on a particular group named ‘The Struggle Kids’, children who were born in concentration camps, abducted and removed to other countries or children who’d grown up in orphanages. After the country’s independence, the government first memorialised and protected the ‘heroes’ who directly fought for liberation, with veterans the first to receive the benefits of independence. The struggling kids weren’t able to reap the advantages of liberation as when they returned to Namibia after being dislocated, not only did they not have a family or community support network present to aid their development and protect them from harm, but also they were excluded, perceived as different and other, ‘exile kids’. Only in the last twenty years has the government begun to recognise the ‘Struggle Kids’ as a collective after political demonstrations: marches and occupying space, a recognition which ideally will encourages more practical methods of re-integration for these individuals into society. Fumanti’s words equally spoke about the responsibilities and efforts of Germany and South Africa, the colonisers and occupiers of Namibia from the 1880s until the 1980s, in aiding the development of Namibia through independence. Whether reparations can ever fully compensate and amend for decades of conflict and trauma remeains to be seen.
I hope by relaying the key points of the evening’s discussion, in some small way, I have expressed not only the scope of issues the panel raised but also the complexity of the conversations presented. Not to suggest that the speaker didn’t approach the topics with clarity, my nerves at approaching a talk of experts in subjects my own knowledge is completely scare in, studying English Lit, were dissuaded.
I particularly enjoyed how the evening was structured, as the talks began with raising the international, broader consequences of conflict, then narrowed to addressing the biological and psychological impacts on people, then an analysis of a specific case study. The speeches thus ranged from issues concerning the globe and genetics, international efforts to specific examples of individuals affected. Preceeding the event were a series of questions led by the moderator, Michael Tyra. The questions alternated between Tyra’s own and one’s posed on the website Sli.do, an efficient platform whereby audience members could anonymously post questions with their on various devices which would then appear on projected on a screen. If a question felt particularly pertinent and engaging people could up-vote it. Tyra took note of audience demands and would subsequently relay the most popular question. The most intriguing topics in this section of the evening involved the recent Syrian refugee crisis and what are the most effective tactics that can be tactfully and productively employed by local communities and NGO/INGO’s in periods of conflict.
Thanks to the work of UNICEF and Protocol, the evening was a professional, intellectually rigorous and fascinating event where the lectures spoke with eloquence and proficiency. I strongly encourage readers to attend future events by this brilliant partnership, as I can ensure it will be a thought-provoking and relevant experience.