18 February 2021 - Global

Weapon of War: Sexual Violence against Children in Conflict

Every day the UN records on average two cases of sexual violence perpetrated against children by armed groups or forces. Two cases, of rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, forced abortion or sterilisation. And still we can be sure that there are so many more that go unreported.

“I still have difficulty breathing, but I haven’t been to a doctor, as I feel too ashamed”, said a Rohingya girl our teams supported after she was raped by a member of the military.

Sexual violence is probably the most underreported grave violation against children in conflict. The shame the survivors are left with, is a common consequence of sexual violence. Even in peaceful contexts, it is estimated that around 80% of sexual assaults go unreported. And in conflict settings there are so many additional challenges: lack of systems to report, the stigma and fear of retaliation, lack of services for survivors, especially children and adolescents.

All of this means the reported cases of sexual violence against children in conflict are just a tip of the iceberg. Today Save the Children is publishing “Weapon of War: Sexual Violence against Children in Conflict” to show a bigger part of this iceberg. Rather than count cases, we use a new lens and estimate how many children are at risk of sexual violence in conflict. By this we mean children who live less than 50km to conflicts where armed groups have perpetrated sexual violence against children in a given year.

These are five things to take away from this report:

1.  Ten times more children are at risk today than in 1990

The report reveals that a shocking 72 million children globally are at risk of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups and forces. Our analysis shows that the number of children at risk today is nearly ten times higher than in 1990. In recent years we have also seen that a bigger share of armed forces and groups that perpetrate acts of sexual violence in conflict are also targeting children.

2.  Six most dangerous countries in the world are

The countries where children face the greatest risk of sexual violence in conflict today are Colombia, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

3.  Sexual violence is used by armed groups both tactically and opportunistically 

Sexual violence in conflict is a weapon, whether it is used tactically or opportunistically. Armed groups and forces perpetrate it against children and other civilians to terrorise them, spread fear and intimidation for political and military gain, to ethnically cleanse or humiliate an ethnic group, or to punish civilians for suspected support of opposing forces.

But it is used opportunistically as well. Research shows that non-state armed groups that recruit children are more likely to commit sexual violence. Studies also show how sexual violence spreads among armed forces and groups as a “practice,” something normalised and tolerated.

4. Girls are disproportionally affected but boys are targeted, too

Sexual violence is experienced globally by all genders and all ages and is fundamentally rooted in unequal power dynamics. For children, their age and gender play a significant role in their vulnerability, placing adolescent girls at particularly high risk of sexual violence in conflict. But boys are not exempt from this suffering. In the last few years, sexual violence has been strategically perpetrated against boys in conflicts in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, DRC, South Sudan, and Syria. Non-conforming sexual orientation, gender identity or expression may also place a child at a greater risk of sexual violence in conflict, as well as disability. 

5. Urgent call for gender equality and child rights

The alarming findings of this report have far-reaching implications. These range from the devastating consequences that sexual violence has for children, their communities and societies at large, to the lack of funding to address the issue. The report flags remaining data gaps, shortcomings in child-centred and gender-responsive service delivery, and impunity for these crimes. Our findings also show the urgency of the broader call to world leaders, donors and NGOs for gender equality and child rights, including increased focus on girls’ empowerment initiatives. As Dr Denis Mukwege writes in his powerful foreword to this report: “The international community can and must do more”.

Our CEO, Inger Ashing says: “The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war is abhorrent. We must come together to ensure this grave violation is wiped out once and for all.” 

Our commitment and call to action 

Save the Children will continue to work with children impacted by sexual violence in humanitarian crises to ensure they have access to tailored services, including mental health and psychosocial support.

We also call on world leaders, security experts, donors, members of the UN, and NGOs to:

  • Boost services and programmes that meet children’s special needs
  • End the impunity of sexual violence against children by strengthening and enforcing laws, while holding perpetrators to account
  • Strengthen and better coordinate the collection of data on sexual violence against children in conflict

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