13 February 2020 - Global

Children in conflict at highest risk of violence since records began

Maher*, 8, Idlib, North West . Syria

New analysis also reveals how conflict affects girls and boys differently:

  • Nine in ten child victims of sexual violence are girls;
  • Boys are more often killed or maimed, abducted or recruited by armed groups;
  • Boys more likely to be killed in direct warfare, if girls are killed or badly injured it is more likely to be a result of indiscriminate explosive weapons.

Wars and conflicts are intensifying and becoming increasingly dangerous for children, according to a new report released by Save the Children. Whilst fewer children are living in conflict-affected areas, those who do face the greatest risk of falling victim to serious violence since systematic records began[i].

The research revealed that some 415 million children worldwide were living in conflict-affected areas in 2018, a slight decrease from the year before. Yet the number of reported grave violations—the worst crimes committed against children—increased, revealing that children in conflict were more likely to be killed or maimed, recruited, abducted, sexually abused, see their schools attacked, or have aid denied to them.

The number of children in high intensity conflict areas stands at a staggering 149 million, double the number of all children in the United States[ii].        

This disturbing trend is one of the findings in ‘Stop the War on Children 2020: Gender Matters’, the organisation’s third annual report on the number of children in conflict across the globe.

This year’s report, which has launched ahead of the Munich Security Conference where world leaders gather to debate international security issues, also contains a systematic analysis of how the six grave violations against children in conflict impact boys and girls differently.

Girls were far more likely to be raped, to be forced into child marriage or to fall victim to other forms of sexual abuse than boys—87 percent of all verified cases of sexual violence involved girls, while 1.5 percent were boys. In 11 percent of the cases, the gender was not recorded. Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo were the most dangerous countries for girls.

Between 2005 and the end of 2018, there were almost 20,000 verified cases of sexual violence against children. This number is thought to be just the tip of the iceberg as sexual violence, which is often used as a tactic of war, is hugely underreported due to social barriers and the stigma associated with it.

Briska*, 22, arrived in a displacement camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in December 2019, after fleeing North East Syria with her five younger siblings. They left behind their parents who hoped their children could escape the escalating conflict while they stayed to try to protect their home.

“I still consider myself a child, so how will I be able to take on the role of both father and mother? They are my sisters and brother, it is too difficult for me. Even in a safe place [the displacement camp], girls are scared because it is not like when you are with your parents or have an older brother with you.”

Briska* told Save the children she felt vulnerable: “Harassment is happening, and rape [in conflicts]. That’s why women are really affected the most in conflicts and wars."

At least 12,125 children were either killed or injured by conflict-related violence in 2018 alone, a rise of 13 percent compared with the reported total the year before, with Afghanistan being the most dangerous country for children. The number of reported attacks on schools and hospitals also increased to 1,892, a rise of 32 percent compared to the previous year.

Boys were more at risk of suffering violations such as killing and maiming, abduction and recruitment into armed groups and armed forces. Of all verified cases of killing and maiming, 44 percent were boys, 17 percent were girls. In the other cases, gender was not recorded.

Amir* fled Iraq to a town in North East Syria following an injury sustained in an airstrike, which resulted in him having his arm amputated. He is now living in a camp with his mother and siblings. Their father’s whereabouts are unknown.
“I remember I used to go to school with my father. He used to drop me off and pick me up. But now I'm in the camp and my father doesn't drop me off or pick me up from school,” said Amir.

The day I got injured, I was with my cousin. All of a sudden, we were attacked by shelling. They took us to hospital. The thing that has scared me most during this conflict is my injury.”

His mother Asma* added: “Amir* was bleeding for three hours. He bled from the moment they picked him up until he got to hospital. Before the injuries, Amir* was good, there was nothing wrong with him. Now, sometimes he gets tired, cries and is in pain. But since he’s seen that the shelling has stopped around us here, he has started going to school and tells me that he’s more comfortable now.”

Adolescent boys were far more likely to be killed by direct warfare than girls, as they are more likely to be directly targeted. When girls are killed or badly injured, it is more often the result of the use of explosive weapons which kill indiscriminately in urban or populated areas hitting homes, streets and busy marketplaces.

Boys are also more vulnerable to recruitment by armed forces or armed groups, and abductions. Of the more than 2,500 children abducted by armed groups in 2018, 80 percent were boys.           

Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International, said: Our report shows that today’s wars are becoming more dangerous for children. Children living in conflict zones face an increased risk of being killed, maimed, recruited by armed groups or sexually abused.

It’s staggering that the world stands by while children are targeted with impunity. Since 2005, at least 95,000 children were recorded to have been killed or maimed, tens of thousands of children abducted, and millions of children denied access to education or health services after their schools and hospitals were attacked. The senseless destruction of children’s lives will continue, unless all governments and warring parties act now to uphold international norms and standards, and make perpetrators answer for their crimes.

“Our analysis shows that boys and girls suffer differently in war. To meet their specific needs, we must invest larger sums in helping their recovery. Children are best placed to tell us what they need to recover and rebuild their future. For this to happen, we must listen to them.”

In its report, Save the Children states that the only way to stop the war on children is for governments and other parties to adopt and implement action plans to address the suffering of children and support their recovery in the ground.

*Indicates name changed


Links to content on Iraq, Syria and DRC case studies


  • The Stop the War on Children reportincludes the most comprehensive collection of data on the number of children living in conflict-affected areas. It reveals that the ten worst countries for children living in conflict remain the same as 2017: Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia.
  • The report has been informed by background reports by PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo) on number of children living in conflict zones, and by Proteknon, on gender and conflict.
  • Syria comes out as particularly bad for children, with high numbers of grave violations against children and 99 % of children living in areas affected by conflict. Conflict is also worsening for children living in Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria, which respectively have the highest figures for the killing and maiming, sexual violence, and the recruitment and use of children by armed forces or armed groups.
  • In 2018, slightly less children lived in conflict affected areas than the year before (415 million against 429 million in 2017. 149 million of them lived in High intensity conflict zones, which are aeras where more than 1,000 battle-related deaths are recorded in a year.

[i] The UN started recording the six grave violations against children in conflict in 2005. The six grave violations are: killing and maiming, recruitment, abduction, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of aid. In 2018, the number of these violations were at its highest point ever.

[ii] See the Census’ American Community Survey 2018 data which has 73,352,242 for population under 18 years.

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