Children suffering from sexual violence
Sexual violence is often a weapon of war, consciously deployed. It can include rape, mutilation, exploitation and abuse. In the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, it was a deliberate policy to rape teenage girls and women and force them to bear child. More recent conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan have all involved the use of sexual violence. Adolescent girls are frequently singled out for their youth and relative defencelessness or because they are perceived to be less likely to be infected with HIV. Reports abound from conflict zones of girls being abducted and forced into sexual slavery by militias or rebel groups.
The rise in sexual violence that often accompanies conflict is not restricted to crimes committed by combatants. The chaos and disruption produced by war undermines the rule of law, leaving children – particularly those who have become separated from their families and communities – much more vulnerable to sexual violence or exploitation. Camps for displaced persons can be perilous places for children, where overcrowding, desperation and the weak application of the rule of law can expose children to sexual abuse. In addition, the poverty, hunger and insecurity generated by conflict can force children into prostitution: in Colombia, for example, girls as young as 12 are reported to have submitted sexually to armed forces in order to ensure their families’ safety.
All of these factors tend to increase the likelihood of HIV transmission in conflict zones, while the breakdown of school and health systems inhibit safeguards that could counter these risks. In addition, the hopelessness of life in a war-affected area can foster risky sexual behaviour among young people. A conflict in a region with low rates of HIV prevalence will not in itself produce an explosion of infection rates. But the breakdown of social order and sexual violence associated with conflict always increase the spread of the virus. When war erupts in an area with already elevated levels of HIV, as in Rwanda during the 1990s and in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the effect is catastrophic.