Weapon of War: Sexual violence against children in conflict

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Save the Children International

Globally, 426 million children live in conflict zones today. We estimate that a staggering 72 million of them, or one in six, live 50 kilometres or closer to conflicts where armed groups or forces have perpetrated sexual violence against children during the last year. This report presents the very first quantitative analysis of the risk of sexual violence against children in conflict for the period 1990-2019.

Worldwide, people of all genders and all ages experience sexual violence, which 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 settings.

Our analysis shows that the number of children at risk of sexual violence committed by conflict actors is ten times higher today than in 1990. The number of children at risk fluctuates from one year to another, but the upward trend is very clear. In the most recent years we also see that a bigger share of armed actors who commit sexual violence in conflict also perpetrate it against children.

The countries with the highest share of children living in conflict zones with reports of sexual violence perpetrated by conflict actors against children include Colombia (with 24% of all children in the country facing this risk), Iraq (with 49% of all children at risk), Somalia (56%), South Sudan (19%), Syria (48%) and Yemen (83%).

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 for gender equality and child rights, including increased focus on girls’ empowerment initiatives, recognising that girls are disproportionately affected.

Sexual violence in conflict is a weapon, whether it is used tactically and opportunistically. While children face increasing risk of sexual violence in conflict, the international community struggles to adequately address this human rights violation. The scale and gravity of sexual violence against children in armed conflict call for immediate and concerted action by the UN, states, donors, the humanitarian community, researchers and civil society to meet their obligations to ensure children are safe from harm. We need to: strengthen data collection on sexual violence against children in conflict, put children at the centre of international action against this violation, address the underlying root causes and drivers of sexual violence against children, and end impunity for this egregious act.

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