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Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

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War hits home when it hits
women and girls

Women and girls in particular experience conflict and displacement in different ways from men because of the gender division of roles and responsibilities.

Photo

Increasingly, modern warfare is wreaking havoc on the lives of women and girls, and on the health and educational services that are key to family and community survival and development.

"Nothing was spared, held sacred or protected", says a new United Nations report by Graça Machel, the Secretary-General's Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. "More and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum" in which civilians rather than soldiers are the main targets in war.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "gender-based inequity is usually exacerbated during situations of extreme violence such as armed conflict." Women and girls in particular experience conflict and displacement in different ways from men because of the gender division of roles and responsibilities. The targeting of women and girls by armed forces further exacerbates the situation.


Photo: After leaving a Thai refugee camp, a Cambodian girl waits in a repatriation centre to be relocated in her "native" country, which she may never have seen before. The Machel report notes that statelessness is a risk for refugee children, as they may have difficulty establishing their identity and nationality. ©


Examples of such targeting and gender-based inequity leading to higher mortality and morbidity (illness) among females during armed conflict include:

  • violence against girls and women, including rape and sexual slavery;
  • hunger and exploitation in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, when men take control of food distribution;
  • malnutrition, when food aid neglects women's and children's special nutritional requirements; and
  • culturally inappropriate and/or inadequate access to health services, including mental and reproductive health services.

Far more children die as a result of disease and malnutrition caused by war than from direct attack. Mass population movements, malnutrition, exposure and overcrowding in refugee camps encourage the spread of disease. WHO estimates that as many as half the world's refugees may be infected with tuberculosis. Health services for women, girls and the children in their charge break down in wartime, just when they need them most.

In countries where children are already vulnerable to disease, the onset of armed conflict may increase death rates by 24-fold. For example, in Mozambique between 1981 and 1988, war caused an estimated 454,000 excess childhood deaths, above what would have normally been expected. And during the conflict in Somalia, more than half the deaths in some places were caused by measles. Often health services available in emergency situations are dominated by men, so many women and girls, for cultural or religious reasons, underutilize these services despite their need of them.

The population movements and breakdown of social controls engendered by armed conflict encourage, in their turn, rape and prostitution as well as sexual slavery to serve combatants. Unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, are the collateral physical effects of this human degradation.

Since war broke out in the Balkans in 1992, it is estimated that more than 20,000 women and girls have been raped. In Rwanda, between April 1994 and April 1995, more than 15,700 girls and women were raped. Rape can no longer be treated merely as an unfortunate by-product of war and must be punished, the UN report says, adding, "Acts of gender-based violence, particularly rape, committed during armed conflicts constitute a violation of international humanitarian law."

"Children may also become victims of prostitution following the arrival of peace-keeping forces," says the report. "In Mozambique, after the signing of the peace treaty in 1992, United Nations Observer Mission in Mozambique (UNOMOZ) soldiers recruited girls aged 12 to 18 years into prostitution. After a commission of enquiry confirmed the allegations, the soldiers implicated were sent home. In 6 out of 12 country studies prepared for a research report ... the arrival of peace-keeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution."

Sometimes armed conflict promotes development of new abilities in women and girls. During the Eritrean struggle, those fighting for national independence established a school curriculum which reflected a commitment to socialist equality and the rights of women. Classes were coeducational and girls were encouraged to fully participate in all fields, particularly the technical ones.

Unfortunately, war more often discourages girls from attending school because it is unsafe for them to leave home. In Somalia, girls dropped out of school when it became too dangerous to travel to classes. In some cases, this accelerated their early marriage. School attendance is further discouraged when the absence of males means greater workloads for women and girls. This is particularly true when, in the absence of both parents, adolescent girls take over as heads of their households.

In some wars, particularly religious conflicts, certain factions may believe that girls should not be educated. "The recent decision of the Taliban in Afghanistan to curtail girls' access to education in the areas under their control has been of particular concern for UN agencies and NGOs," says the report. For that reason UNICEF and some other agencies have suspended assistance to education programmes in those areas "until there is the possibility of equality of opportunity between boys and girls," the report notes.

The decline in schooling for females during periods of armed conflict has implications for a nation's post-conflict recovery: the World Bank says that education is the single most important factor contributing to national economic growth. Education, or lack of it, also has implications for sustainable population growth on a global scale. Girls and women who are educated will have fewer children and those they have are more likely to survive and thrive. For example, child mortality in Bangladesh is five times greater among children whose mothers have no education than among those whose mothers have seven or more years of schooling.

When threats of violence keep girls from attending school, flexible systems of 'distance learning' are recommended. Distance learning marries broadcast and recorded media with pre-packaged materials such as the 'school-in-a-box' consisting of brushes and paints, chalk, paper, pens, pencils and books, created by UNICEF and UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). These approaches are also proving successful in displacement camps. Schooling can take place even in the most unconventional sites. In Eritrea in the late 1980s, wartime classes were often held in caves, under trees, or in camouflaged huts built from sticks and leaves.

"While all around may be in chaos, schooling can represent a state of normalcy," the report says. "The ability to carry on schooling in the most difficult circumstances demonstrates confidence in the future."

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