Over nine months have passed since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Several of the first Ukrainian women who became pregnant as a result of wartime sexual violence have now given birth to children who were conceived as a result of this violence. More will be born in the coming months.
And if the conflict and the current pattern of violence continues, even more children will come into the world as a result – not only in Ukraine, but also in Poland, Germany and other countries Ukrainian women have fled to.
How can we ensure that these children do not suffer as a consequence of the actions of their biological fathers?
Children who have a biological parent on each side of an armed conflict are often perceived as children of the enemy. Being perceived in this way can have huge consequences for these children.
In Norway, we have painful experience of precisely this situation. The so-called “tyskerbarna” or “German children” (children born to Norwegian women who had become pregnant by German soldiers serving in Norway during World War II, mostly as a result of love relationships) were severely stigmatized in the postwar period.
A study has shown that these so-called “German children” have endured higher mortality rates and worse living conditions than their contemporaries. In interviews we have conducted with children born of war in Denmark and Germany, the experiences of the Norwegian children have been cited as extreme. People we have interviewed have often begun conversations by saying “it wasn’t as bad for us as for the Norwegian children born of war.” The perception that Norway was a particularly harsh place for war children still prevails.
Those studies that exist suggest that children born of war are often more vulnerable than other children who grow up in wartime or post-war conditions. They may find themselves little protected by their families and local communities. They fall between two stools.
Their experiences are not mentioned in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and as victims of war their status is dependent on that of their mothers. As a result, the unique experiences of children born of war are often rendered invisible in humanitarian response mechanisms and in post-war relief efforts. For this reason, we argue that international organizations such as the UN, and countries such as Norway, have a particular responsibility to recognize these children’s existence and special needs for protection.
Children born as the result of war rapes
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing conflicts in the eastern parts of Ukraine, international organizations have attempted to assess the incidence of war rapes. But this work is difficult.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote in a 2017 report that the rise in birth rates in these areas doubled in the period 2015–2017, including among women over 40. The report attributed this doubling to an increase in conflict-related sexual violence. An independent commission of the UN Human Rights Council is investigating the crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine since the invasion. Already a first report, published in October 2022, speaks of a pattern of rape and other sexual violence by Russian forces. The report contains UN-verified evidence of sexual violence that may be essential for subsequent court cases.
Another report indicates that Ukrainian children are being deported without consent to Russian or Russian-controlled territories. These deportations are justified on the basis that the children are orphans, despite the fact that many of them either do in fact have biological parents or have grown up in adoptive families.
It is important that children fathered by Russian soldiers are allowed to remain with those mothers, or other family members who want to keep them. Both mothers and children must be allowed to retain their Ukrainian citizenships, and the children must have birth certificates. In many conflicts, children born of war are denied such certificates, either because the father’s identity cannot be confirmed or because the father is on the enemy side.
Children may also lose their citizenship in cases where the mother is seen as a traitor who has gone over to the enemy, even in cases where the mother herself is a victim of violence and/or force.
This error was also perpetrated against Norwegian women who had children with German soldiers during World War II. If they married the German father of their child, they risked losing Norwegian citizenship. In some cases, women and their children had to leave Norway or be detained in an internment camp, allegedly to protect these women and children against bullying by others and the spread of venereal diseases.
Most people though, saw this as a legitimate form of punishment of this group of women and their children even though they legally had not committed any crime. Only as late as in 2018, the so-called “German girls” (the mothers) received a state apology from the then-prime minister Erna Solberg. This was more than 18 years after the Norwegian “German children” had received an apology from the then prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik in 2000.
An effective weapon
One of the cheapest and most effective weapons of war is not a Molotov cocktail, but sexual violence. This is also the case in Ukraine, where continual reports of sexual violence emerge from occupied areas.
Ukrainian women and organizations are taking to social media to give each other advice about avoiding sexual violence. They also ask each other for advice about what to do after experiencing this kind of attack.
The advice of a Ukrainian gynecologist who recommended that women should carry a pair of scissors to defend themselves against attacks has gone viral.
There is a shortage of medicines and basic health services, in particular reproductive health services. In addition, pregnant Ukrainian women who flee across the border to the neighbouring country of Poland have no access to safe, legal abortions there. As a result, some will be forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies.
In May, the European Parliament passed an emergency resolution. The resolution encourages countries that take in Ukrainian refugees to offer them sexual and reproductive health and right services, including emergency contraception and safe abortion. So far, however, the resolution has had little effect.
Signs of hope?
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is already a generation of children who were born as a result of sexual violence in the1992–1995 war. These children want to be seen and heard. They have formed the Forgotten Children of War Association/ Zaboravljena djeca rata and are an important voice for this overlooked group of victims of war.
In 2022 the organization achieved a major victory when Brčko District (which is under the direct control of the federal authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina) resolved to recognize children born as the result of wartime rapes as a separate category of victims with legal status, like other civilian victims.
In January this year, the British authorities suggested that British children born as the result of rape should have their own legal status as victims. Even in peacetime the British authorities recognize that these children are a separate group of victims with particular needs for additional protection of their rights.
Can Norway go from being perceived as one of the countries with the worst European records for the treatment of children born of war, to becoming an advocate for the rights of children born of war on a newly war-torn continent?
This text is an edited version of the op ed in Norwegian in Aftenposten 19 February 2023: “Ikke glem barna født av krigsvolden i Ukraina“. Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 31 January 2023: “Ukraine: Das Drama vergewaltigter Frauen und ihrer „Kinder des Krieges“ | Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (ksta.de)”
- Inger Skjelsbæk, Professor, University of Oslo and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
- Johanne Rokke Elvebakken, doctoral researcher, University of Oslo
- Lina Stotz, doctoral researcher, University of Oslo
- Ingvill Constanze Ødegaard, Professor University of Oslo and GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences (Cologne, Germany)