72 Million Children Are at Risk for Sexual Violence in Conflict. What Can Be Done?

A staggering 72 million children—17% of the 426 million children living in conflict areas globally, or 1 in 6—are living near armed groups that have been reported to perpetrate sexual violence against children.

That means 3% of all children in the world are living at risk for sexual violence in a conflict zone.

Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd/Save the Children

This is one of the figures of wartime risk reported in Save the Children’s 2021 report Weapon of War: Sexual Violence Against Children in Conflict. The figure is based on a new study conducted at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

This background study not only reveals an alarming reality, it identifies a concerning upward trend. This is a global problem that requires urgent attention. There are too few studies focusing on this problem or systematically documenting how children are victimized by sexual violence – directly or indirectly, how prevalent this is, and what the consequences are.

Finding children at risk

Globally, we estimate that in 2019 about 426 million children lived in a conflict zone, 50 kilometers or closer to violent conflict events. In some of these conflicts, the armed actors commit acts of sexual violence. A large majority of the conflicts with reports of sexual violence in recent years also have reports of children among the victims/survivors of sexual violence by armed actors. The Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) dataset provides systematic data on the reported prevalence of sexual violence, and which conflict actors have been reported to commit sexual violence against children. The updated SVAC data covers all armed conflicts in the years 1989-2019. Due to data limitations we do not know exactly how many children have been victimized of sexual violence, only where it has been reported and how pervasive the problem seems to be. Based on this, and using specific information on the location and timing of conflict events and population density we estimate how many children live in areas where conflict actors commit sexual violence against children.

The figure of 72 million children reflects the specific risk associated with sexual violence by actors directly involved in armed conflict, and does not account for risk of sexual violence committed by other types of perpetrators, such as sexual violence by criminal gangs, peacekeepers, law enforcement, or domestic sexual violence.

Figure taken from PRIO Policy Brief “Children at Risk of Wartime Sexual Violence, 1990–2019”

Key Findings

Some of our main findings show:

  • Of the 54 active conflicts in 2019, 22 involved reports of sexual violence against civilians. 15 of these 22 conflicts (68%) involved reports of sexual violence by one or more armed groups against children under the age of 18.
  • In 2019, almost 1 in 3 children (31%) lived in a country where conflict actors have reportedly used sexual violence against children. This constitutes approximately 834 million children in total.
  • In 2019, approximately 72 million children (3% of all children in the world) were living in a conflict zone (i.e. within 50 kilometers of one or more conflict events) with reported risk of sexual violence against children.
  • Our estimated number of children living in conflict zones with risk of sexual violence against children has increased since 1990. However, there are large variations from year to year.
  • In 2019, Asia was the world region with the highest total number of children living in conflict zones with reported sexual violence against children (approximately 37 million children).
  • The Middle East was the world region in which a child had the highest probability of living in a conflict zone with reported sexual violence against children (16%).
  • The five countries in 2019 with the highest share of children living in conflict zones with reported war time sexual violence are Yemen (83%), Somalia (56%), Iraq (49%), Syria (48%) and Colombia (24%).

Figure taken from PRIO Policy Brief “Children at Risk of Wartime Sexual Violence, 1990–2019”

Action must be taken

Sexual violence against children is a global problem that requires urgent attention. Policy makers, human rights defenders, and other actors need to devote more resources and dedicated attention to this vulnerable group of war victims to reduce the harm of war to children.

Specifically, we offer three recommendations:

  • Governments and non-governmental organizations should improve reporting on sexual violence against children and reverse recent trends of shorter, less detailed, and geographically limited human rights reports
  • There should be better use of existing bodies such as UN and/or regional peacekeeping operations, UN Special Representatives, and political missions, to increase monitoring and reporting of sexual violence against children in conflict zones
  • Domestic and international human rights organizations should demand that governments and non-state actors comply with international humanitarian law as obligated by the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols

As the child population at risk of wartime sexual violence seems to be increasing, the imperative to take action is more urgent than ever. As a member of the UN Security Council, and chairing the working group on Children in Armed Conflict, Norway now has a golden opportunity to contribute to this end. The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, has promised to bring up the results from the report at the UN Security Council demanding that perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict be held accountable.

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