13 February 2020 - Global

Gender Matters for Children in Conflict


“Here in Nigeria, discrimination is worse for girls living in conflict-affected areas. Some are forced into early marriage by their parents as a means of economic survival and protection. I stand in sympathy and solidarity with them – and with millions of girls in similar situations around the world. Children living in conflict areas like Northeast Nigeria can only live for today, not knowing if there will be a tomorrow. This has to change.”

(Purity, 14, Nigeria)

Purity’s words are a powerful reminder of the dangers children face as today’s brutal wars intensify, destroying their childhoods and hopes of a future. Our latest research shows that every day millions of children, like Purity and her friends, are now at increased risk of falling victim to one or more of the six ‘grave violations’, as identified by the UN. These violations include being killed or maimed, recruitment by armed groups, abduction, sexual violence, attacks on schools or hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian aid. It should shame us all that the number of grave violations against children in conflict continues to rise year on year, as the world stands by.

Our latest report ‘Stop the War on Children: Gender Matters’, as well as setting out the risks faced by the 149 million children living in high intensity conflict zones today, outlines how girls and boys are affected in different ways by conflict. Our analysis, for example, shows that girls are at far higher risk of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence, including child, early and forced marriage; meanwhile boys in conflict zones are more at risk of killing and maiming, abduction, and recruitment by armed groups.

In order to better support the recovery of all children suffering from the horrendous consequences of wars beyond their control, we need to improve our understanding of the risks they face, and how these risks differ depending on who they are.

In the places where we work, for example, we see how conflict can deepen existing gender dynamics and inequalities. This means women and girls, already expected to care for their families, are more likely to be at home or restricted to the immediate area, than men and boys, during conflict. This impacts our understanding of how girls, in particular, are affected by conflict as the risks they face occur in less public settings and are therefore harder to verify and address. At the same time, boys are often expected, and permitted, to be outside in the community more than girls and are more likely to be targeted by armed actors because they are perceived as a threat. This explains why boys account for the majority of children killed, maimed and recruited into armed groups, but also why the risks they face are more widely reported on.

Between 2005 and the end of 2018, there were almost 20,000 verified cases of sexual violence against children in conflict. These figures are heartbreaking but the truth is the total number is far greater, as sexual violence – both against boys and girls - remains hugely under-reported due to the social stigma associated with it. Limited access to affected areas and security concerns also results in under-reporting against all six grave violations.

This is why we are calling on all states and humanitarian actors to support better data collection against the six grave violations at UN level. We also need to see more investment in child protection in humanitarian settings including funding for targeted interventions on sexual and gender-based violence. It should go without saying, but if we want to give children the best chance at rebuilding a future we must also listen to them! Children are best placed to tell us what they are feeling and what they need, and so we should meaningfully involve them as we design programs and policies to support their recovery.

Hiba* (red shirt), 17, and Rama*, 14, pose for a portrait outside their family caravan in Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees, Jordan.

“Adults have taught us so many things. Any man can teach his daughter what to do and what not to do. And at some point, it will be his turn to listen to me and learn from me, because I have so much to teach you,”

(Hiba, 17, from Syria, left).

Progress for children living in conflict today is still possible but to turn the tide governments must take action now. The senseless destruction of children’s lives will only end when governments and warring parties uphold the international laws and standards that exist to protect children in conflict, and hold perpetrators of crimes against children accountable for their actions.

If the children living in conflict today are left behind, we will not fulfil the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals and of a more peaceful and prosperous society where we can guarantee survival, protection and hope for all children.

We stand side by side with children in the world's toughest places.