16/06/2017 04:24 BST | Updated 16/06/2017 06:42 BST

For Children Caught Up In War, Empowerment Is The Key To The Future

Phil Saunders/War Child UK

Today we celebrate Day of the African Child. Around the world and in many countries in Africa, children suffer daily because of wars they did not start.

Conflicts in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan rarely make it onto the news agenda, but millions of children have been forcibly moved from their homes, separated from their families, or have witnessed the violent death of a loved one. Many have been sexually assaulted or forced to commit violent acts against others. The violence children have seen and experienced is likely to leave lasting scars and to continue to impact their lives long after.

Years after conflict, communities are left destroyed. Children lose out on a chance of education and early marriage and child labour increase. A lack of employment and livelihood opportunities leave young people vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups.

Many children we work with at War Child have known nothing but war.  Speaking of the conflict in Central African Republic, where violence between rival militias is inescapable for most, Stephanie, 15, says, "Pregnant women gave birth to a generation of kids that have war in their mind and spirit."

Jean, 18, says, "After war, it's a disaster."

"Things need to be rebuilt, but unfortunately people's hearts have been hurt. War changes people's minds, war makes people violent, war transforms people. That is how it is in my country, where people have no compassion left."

The impact of the conflict on young people has been devastating.

Before the war, the education system was already struggling. Now it's been virtually destroyed - particularly in rural areas. Schools have been occupied by militia, looted and razed to the ground by rebel groups. Any schools that are functioning aren't always safe spaces. Corruption and abuse by teachers, including the horrifying process of demanding sex for grades, is all too common.

Jean and Stephanie are members of VoiceMore, War Child's youth advocacy programme in the Central African Republic. VoiceMore empowers children and young people affected by armed conflict to share their thoughts and influence decisions that are made about them. It's a space where young people are supported to speak up about what they've been through in war affected areas. Groups discuss, debate and share the impact of conflict on children and what they feel could be done to help improve their lives and the situations they find themselves in.

Dieudonne, 15, says, "It feels good to work with VoiceMore because it helps me to make things change. VoiceMore helps me to develop my intellectual capacity so I know how to express myself and how to react in certain situations.

"I feel more able bring some change, even in a complicated situation. That is basically what I like - the capacity to defend my present and my future but also to correct my past."

Andrew, 17, says, "At the beginning War Child taught us how to be a citizen, how to behave in society."

"War Child also taught us about our rights. I really like the programme because I didn't know my rights before and now I can defend other children who don't know their rights.

"On our project, we are helping children avoid the sale of notes and 'sex for grades' corruption and abuses in schools that affect children's futures."

"War Child helped me build my skills and gave me the opportunity to defend others. I now know how to think to help others."

Young people like the VoiceMore group tend to be their own best advocates. They know the problems they face better than anyone else. The onus is on world leaders to listen to them.

International governments must of course prioritise peaceful resolutions to conflicts. But such interventions are not immediate, and in the meantime young people are often left in a state of limbo.

When war breaks out, children are confronted with difficult and traumatising situations that they have no control over.

If we want children to feel empowered, both in Africa and around the world, we must equip them with the skills to make their own changes. Through youth advocacy, War Child supports them to build awareness, self-esteem and confidence so they have some sense of control in their lives - after years of uncertainty, they deserve that much.