Back to Contents

"Children need be the victims of war only if there is no will to prevent it. Experiences in dozens of conflicts confirm that extraordinary actions have been taken and can be taken to protect and provide for children." State of the World's Children, UNICEF, 1996.

Within assistance programmes designed to promote health and nutrition, psychosocial well-being and education, attention must be given to the special circumstances created by armed conflict. This includes the millions of war-affected children and their families being forced to flee their homes, to be displaced within their countries or crossing borders as refugees. During armed conflicts, children and women also face a heightened risk of rape, sexual humiliation, prostitution and other forms of gender-based violence, which are downplayed as an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of war. Children are increasingly participating in war as combatants, and they are being deliberately recruited by government or rebel armies. Both during and after conflicts, children remain exposed to the dangers of landmines and millions of pieces of unexploded ordnance - bombs, shells and grenades that fail to detonate on impact. The special needs of adolescents are often neglected during times of conflict and in the post-conflict rebuilding of their societies.

Coupled with the rapid social change which often precedes or accompanies war, armed conflict leads to a breakdown in the family support systems so essential to a child's survival and development. Other forms of protection also slip away, particularly government and community support systems.


One of the most alarming trends relating to children and armed conflicts is their participation as active soldiers. Children as young as 8 years of age are being forcibly recruited, coerced and induced to become combatants. Manipulated by adults, children have been drawn into violence that they are too young to resist and with consequences they cannot imagine.

The children most likely to become soldiers are from impoverished and marginalized backgrounds or separated from their families. Children from wealthier and more educated families are often left undisturbed or are released if their parents can ransom them back.

Child soldiers are recruited in many different ways. Some are conscripted, others are press-ganged or kidnapped, and still others are forced to join armed groups to defend their families. In many instances, recruits are arbitrarily seized from the streets, or even from schools and orphanages, when armed militia, police or army cadres roam the streets, picking up anyone they encounter. Hunger and poverty may drive parents to offer their children for service; armies may even pay a child soldier's wage directly to the family. And parents may encourage their daughters to become soldiers if their marriage prospects are poor.

Sometimes, children become soldiers simply in order to survive. Indeed, a military unit can be something of a refuge, serving as a kind of surrogate family. Children may join if they believe that this is the only way to guarantee regular meals, clothing or medical attention.

Children are also used as soldiers in support functions such as cooks, porters, messengers and spies. While these may seem to be less harmful, these functions entail great hardship and risk bringing all children under suspicion. Reports tell of forces deliberately killing even the youngest children on the grounds that they were dangerous. For girls, their participation often entails being forced to provide sexual service. While children of both sexes might start out in indirect support functions, it does not take long before they are placed in the heat of the battle, where their inexperience and lack of training leave them particularly vulnerable.

At the age of 13, I joined the student movement. I had a dream to contribute to make things change, so that children would not be hungry.... Later I joined the armed struggle. I had all the inexperience and the fears of a little girl. I found out that girls were obliged to have sexual relations to alleviate the sadness of the combatants. And who alleviated our sadness after going with someone we hardly knew?... There is a great pain in my being when I recall all these things.... In spite of my commitment, they abused me, they trampled my human dignity. And above all, they did not understand that I was a child and that I had rights. (From a Honduras case study)

Demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers

An urgent priority is to demobilize everyone under 18 years of age from the armed forces. The participation of children must be recognized in all peace agreements so that effective planning can be made for reintegration programmes.

The process of reintegration must help children establish new foundations in life. Re-establishing contact with the family and the community is important for former child soldiers who have grown up away from their families and who have been deprived of many of the normal opportunities for physical, emotional and intellectual development. Providing educational and vocational opportunities for former child combatants may prevent them from rejoining military units, and at the same time improve the economic security of their families. For a former child soldier, an education is more than a route to employment. It can also help to normalize life and to develop an identity separate from that of the soldier. A difficulty to be faced is the likelihood that former combatants may have fallen far behind in their schooling, and may be placed in classes with much younger children. Specific measures may be required, such as establishing special classes for former child soldiers, who can then be reintegrated into regular schools.

The progressive involvement of youth in acts of extreme violence desensitizes them to suffering. This experience makes children more likely to commit violent acts themselves and contributes to their break with society. The lure of ideology is particularly strong in early adolescence, when young people are developing personal identities and searching for a sense of social meaning. Child soldiers may find it difficult to disengage from the idea that violence is a legitimate means of achieving one's aims. The challenge for Governments and civil society is to channel the energy, ideas and experience of youth into contributing in positive ways to the creation of their new, post-conflict society.

No peace treaty to date has formally recognized the existence of child combatants. Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, United Nations, 1996.

Preventing the future use of children in armed conflict

Building on the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a number of organizations are working to raise the minimum age for recruitment and participation in armed forces to 18 years. In 1994, a United Nations working group was established to develop an Optional Protocol to the Convention in order to achieve this.

Several measures have been identified which can reinforce the local capacity to minimize or prevent the use of children as soldiers. For example, local communities should be made more aware of national and international laws governing the age of recruitment. Non-governmental organizations, religious groups and civil society in general can play important roles in establishing ethical frameworks that characterize children's participation in armed conflicts as unacceptable. In Peru, forced recruitment drives have declined where parish churches have denounced the activity. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay, ethnic groups and the mothers of child soldiers have formed organizations to pressure authorities for the release of under-age soldiers. Another important preventive measure is the active and early documentation and tracing of unaccompanied children in refugee or displaced persons camps. Locating refugee camps far from conflict zones can also reduce the chance of children being enticed or recruited into warring groups.

Some recommendations for action

o Support should be given to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Rädda Barnen, the Quakers, UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in their efforts to eradicate the use of children under 18 years of age as soldiers.

o States should ensure the early and successful conclusion of the drafting of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, raising the age of recruitment and participation to 18 years.

o United Nations agencies and international civil society actors should pursue quiet diplomacy with Government and non-State forces and their international supporters to encourage the immediate demobilization of child soldiers and adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

o The media should be encouraged to expose the use of child soldiers and the need for demobilization.

o All peace agreements should include specific measures to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers into society. There is an urgent need for the international community to support programmes, including advocacy and social services, for the demobilization and community reintegration of child soldiers.


Armed conflict has always caused population movements. Children who are forced to flee to neighbouring countries as refugees or who become internally displaced within their own countries are in need of special attention during armed conflict. People are brutally uprooted and forced to flee their homes, exposing them to danger and insecurity. Wherever it occurs, displacement has a profound physical, emotional and developmental impact on children and increases their vulnerability. Of the world's estimated 27 million refugees and 30 million displaced people, 80 per cent are women and children.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that mothers and children are entitled to special care and assistance, and that all children have the right to social protection.

During flight from areas of conflict, families and children continue to be exposed to multiple physical dangers. They are threatened by sudden attacks, shelling, snipers and landmines. Often, they must walk for days with only limited quantities of water and food. Under such circumstances, children become acutely undernourished and prone to illness, and they are often the first to die. Girls in flight are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Ideally, camps for refugees or the internally displaced should be places of safety, offering protection and assistance. However, old power struggles are often reproduced and traditional systems of social protection come under strain or break down completely. There are often high levels of violence, substance abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and forcible recruitment. One important aspect of relief that particularly affects women and children is the distribution of resources such as food, water and plastic sheeting. Men are usually in charge of distribution and often abuse their power by demanding bribes and sexual favours. This puts women and adolescent heads of household at particular risk. The UNHCR "Guidelines on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence" outline practical protection measures such as careful lighting, arrangement of latrines and organizing groups for such tasks as gathering firewood and collecting water.

The need for improved protection for internally displaced children

Children who are displaced but remain in their own countries face perilous circumstances, including a higher risk of dying. Internally displaced persons are people who have been forced to flee their homes in large numbers as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violation of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country. The protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced are similar to those of refugees in nearly all respects, and yet their situation can be worse. While refugees have often moved outside the "war zone", internally displaced people usually remain within or close to the scene of conflict, and they are often likely to be displaced repeatedly.

In contravention of international humanitarian law, the access of internally displaced persons to humanitarian assistance is often impeded by various armed groups. While some organizations have specific mandates to provide assistance to refugees or address human rights violations, at present there is no clear institutional responsibility for the internally displaced.

Unaccompanied children

Unaccompanied children are those who are separated from both parents and are not in the care of another adult who, by law or custom, has taken responsibility to care for them. As a priority in all emergencies, procedures should be adopted to ensure the survival and protection of unaccompanied children. An overriding consideration should be to try to reunite them with their families. Wherever possible, unaccompanied children should be cared for by their extended family, and when this is not possible, by neighbours, friends or other substitute families, rather than in institutions.

In response to the conflict in Rwanda and extensive regional displacement, a vast tracing programme was set up in 1994 by the International Red Cross, UNHCR, UNICEF, Save the Children and other NGOs. More than 100,000 children were registered. By May 1996, more than 33,000 of these children had been reunited with family members.

Unaccompanied children are frequently mistakenly regarded as available for adoption. Adoption permanently severs family links. Because of the difficulty of tracing children at the height of a conflict, unaccompanied children should not be considered available for adoption until all efforts to reunite families, including into the post-conflict phase, have been exhausted. This principle is safeguarded by a recommendation adopted in the 1994 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect to Inter-country Adoption.

To parents, evacuation of their children may appear to be the best solution, but this is frequently not the case. Evacuation poses a long-term risk to children, including the trauma of separation from the family and the increased danger of trafficking, sexual exploitation or illegal adoption. If evacuation is essential, whole families should move together, and if this is not possible, children should at least move with their primary caregivers and siblings. Great care should be taken to ensure that any evacuation is properly documented, and that arrangements are made for appropriate reception and care of children, for maintaining contact with family members and for early reunification. Guidelines on these criteria are supported by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, UNHCR and UNICEF.

Some recommendations for action

o As a priority in all emergencies, procedures should be adopted to ensure the survival and protection of unaccompanied children. Family tracing programmes should be established at the outset of assistance programmes.

o Wherever possible, unaccompanied children should be cared for by their extended family, and when this is not possible, by neighbours, friends or other substitute families, rather than in institutions. No adoptions should be permitted until exhaustive family tracing, including into the post-conflict phase, has been attempted.

o Practical protection measures to prevent sexual violence, discrimination in delivery of relief materials, and the recruitment of children into armed forces must be a priority in all assistance programmes in refugee and displaced persons camps. Such measures should involve women and youth fully in their design, delivery and monitoring and include advocacy and social services to address abuses and violations of children's rights.

o In cooperation with the United Nations Department for Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) in its role as Emergency Relief Coordinator, and in consultation with other major humanitarian agencies, a lead agency should be assigned overall responsibility for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons in each emergency. In collaboration with the lead agency, UNICEF should provide leadership for the protection and assistance of internally displaced children.

o The United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and regional organizations should support the work of the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons in developing an appropriate legal framework to increase protection for internally displaced persons and to give particular emphasis to the specific concerns of children.


In times of war, the disintegration of families and communities leaves women and girls especially vulnerable to violence. Rape is a continual threat, as are other forms of gender-based violence, including prostitution, sexual humiliation and mutilation, trafficking and domestic abuse. Death, upheaval and poverty also increase tensions within the family and the likelihood of domestic violence. Women and girls are at risk of violence in all settings, whether in the home, during flight or in camps to which they have fled for safety. Children affected by gender-based violence also include those who have witnessed the rape of a family member, and those who are ostracized because of an assault on the mother. Acts of gender-based violence, particularly rape committed during armed conflicts, constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.

The damage inflicted by rape

Most child victims of violence and sexual abuse are girls, but boys are also affected. Rape is not incidental to conflict. It can occur on a random and uncontrolled basis due to the general disruption of social boundaries and the licence granted to soldiers and militias. Most often, however, it functions like other forms of torture and is used as a tactical weapon of war to humiliate and weaken the morale of the perceived enemy, to terrorize populations or to force civilians to flee. Systematic rape is often practised with the intent of ethnic cleansing through deliberate impregnation. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for the former Yugoslavia found that this was the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Croatia.

The harm inflicted on a girl or woman is an attack on her family and culture. Wartime rape often has a tragic ripple effect that extends far beyond the pain and degradation of the rape itself. Rape victims who become pregnant are often ostracized by their families and communities and abandon their babies. Some may even commit suicide.

Two important efforts to ensure that relief workers are equipped to respond to the special needs of victims of sexual violence are UNHCR's "Guidelines on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence" and "Guidelines on Evaluation and Care of Victims of Trauma and Violence".

Child victims of prostitution and sexual exploitation

In times of armed conflict, poverty, hunger and desperation may force women and girls into prostitution, obliging them to offer sex for food or shelter, for safe conduct through the war zone or to obtain papers for themselves and their families. The stationing of military troops concentrates large numbers of single men in some areas, including those serving in peace-keeping missions, and has been a factor in the growth of the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Sexual exploitation has a devastating impact on physical and emotional development. Unwanted and unsafe sex can lead to unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. Adolescent girls may suffer in silence after the trauma of sexual exploitation, fearing reprisals from those who attacked them or rejection by their families. They may feel a sense of personal humiliation and anguish which causes many of them to withdraw into a shell of pain and denial.

Seeking justice for victims of war crimes

The widespread practice of rape as an instrument of armed conflict and ethnic cleansing must be ended and its perpetrators prosecuted. In the case of the gravest abuses, international tribunals have been established to punish perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. But in order to fulfil their objectives, the tribunals need greater financial support and more determined political backing. The tribunals established to try accused war criminals in the former Yugoslavia have indicted only eight people on specific charges of rape and assault, despite estimates of up to 20,000 victims. This limited result underscores the difficulties in applying international human rights and humanitarian law to rape, difficulties that are reflected in both the codification and the interpretation of national, and even international, law.

Truth commissions are another important vehicle that can document the incidence and extent of human rights abuses against women and children in conflict situations, expose wrongdoing and reinforce personal accountability. National Truth Commissions have been established in a number of countries, such as Argentina, Burundi, El Salvador, South Africa, Uganda and Viet Nam. For victims of human rights abuses during conflict situations, they seek to facilitate healing, reconciliation and the reconstruction of affected families, communities and nations. The Commissions also reassert the fundamental importance and respect for the sanctity of human life and establish the ethical, moral, legal and political accountability of leaders and civil society.

Some recommendations for action

o All humanitarian responses in conflict situations must emphasize the special reproductive needs of women and girls, including access to family planning services, care during pregnancy as a result of rape, sexual mutilation, childbirth at an early age or infection with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Equally important are the psychosocial needs of mothers who have been subjected to gender-based violence and who need help in order to foster the conditions necessary for the healthy development of their children.

o All military personnel, including peace-keeping personnel, should receive, as part of their training, instruction on their responsibilities towards civilian communities and particularly towards women and children.

o Clear and easily accessible systems should be established for reporting on sexual abuse within both military and civilian populations.

o The treatment of rape as a war crime must be clarified, pursued within military and civilian populations and punished accordingly. Appropriate legal and rehabilitative remedies must be made available to reflect the nature of the crime and its harm.

o Refugee and displaced persons camps should be designed to improve security for women and girls. Women should also be involved in all aspects of camp administration but especially in organizing distribution and security systems. Increased numbers of female personnel should be deployed to the field as protection officers and counsellors.

o In every conflict, support programmes should be established for victims of sexual abuse and gender-based violence. These should offer confidential counselling on a wide range of issues, including the rights of victims. Such programmes should also provide educational activities and skills training.


Landmines pose one of the most insidious and persistent dangers, causing untold suffering to millions of children caught up in armed conflict. Mines continue their devastation long after a conflict ends, often for decades. Today, children in at least 68 countries live amid the threat of more than 110 million landmines still lodged in the ground, awaiting an unwary step. Added to this are millions of items of unexploded ordnance (UXO) - bombs, shells and grenades that failed to detonate. Like landmines, UXOs are indiscriminate weapons that are triggered by innocent and unsuspecting passers-by.

Children are particularly at risk. They are naturally curious about strange objects. Many of the explosives look like toys, pineapples or butterflies. Children may pick up or step on the devices while herding animals, working in the fields or searching for firewood. Even when warnings have been posted about the danger of mines, children may not be able to recognize or read these signs. One danger is that children and adults may become so used to mines that they forget they are lethal weapons.

Kou Ya, 4, and Sia Ya, 6, were leading the water buffalo to pasture in November 1993, when they noticed a round object in a ditch. It looked like the ball boys and girls toss during the Hmong New Year festivities. Sia Ya threw the bomb to her brother. It exploded, killing them both and wounding a passing cyclist.

Children have been known to use mines as wheels for toy trucks, and in Cambodia children have been seen playing boules with B40 anti-personnel mines. Mines and other devices have also become part of daily activities such as fishing, guarding private property and even settling domestic disputes. Such familiarity dulls awareness of the dangers of these devices.

The victims of mines tend to be concentrated among the poorest sectors of society; families already living on the edge of survival are often financially devastated by mine incidents. And when a parent is a mine casualty, the lost ability to work can greatly weaken the care and protection available to children.

Clearing landmines is dangerous and expensive, between $300 and $1,000 per mine, each of which originally cost as little as $3. Countries most contaminated by mines are generally among the world's poorest, with little prospect of being able to afford their own de-mining programmes.

The tasks ahead

Protecting children and other civilians from the scourge of landmines will require rapid progress and financial support in four major areas: a ban on landmines; humanitarian mine clearance that will eventually remove the problem; mine awareness programmes that help children to avoid injury; and rehabilitation programmes that help children recover.

The indiscriminate nature of landmines, the excessive suffering they cause civilians, the immense socio-economic impact and the damage they will continue to cause for years to come have stimulated an international campaign to ban their manufacture and use. In 1992, a global coalition of NGOs established the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Since then, considerable progress has been made: the United Nations Secretary-General has advocated strongly for an end to the landmine scourge and a number of countries have already taken steps to ban the use, production, trade and stockpiling of such weapons.

Removing the danger of landmines requires a long-term international commitment to humanitarian mine clearance. The relatively new concept of humanitarian mine clearance is different from conventional military approaches. According to the United Nations, humanitarian mine clearance means that an area meets safety standards when it is 99.9 per cent free of landmines. Mine clearance should be adapted so that it can be used and sustained locally.

Mine awareness programmes help to recognize landmines and suspected mine areas and explain what to do when a mine is discovered or an incident occurs. Effective mine awareness programmes should not merely tell people about the issues, but should try to involve them in the learning process.

A new programme developed by Save the Children for Afghanistan emphasizes participant involvement, child-to-child approaches, multi-media presentations, role playing, survivors as educators and the creation of safe play areas.

Girls are even less likely than boys to receive special medical attention and prostheses. The extended medical treatment, rehabilitation and psychosocial support that mine injuries demand make them extremely expensive for the families of the victims and thus require international support through development programmes.

Some recommendations for action

o Governments should immediately enact comprehensive national legislation to ban the production, use, trade and stockpiling of landmines and support the campaign for a worldwide ban. In order to reduce the UXO threat, Governments should also make concrete proposals to address the impact on children of other conventional weapons, such as cluster bombs and small calibre weapons.

o In reports to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Governments, where relevant, should report on progress in enacting comprehensive legislation to ban the use, trade and stockpiling of landmines. They should also report on measures being taken in mine clearance and in programmes to promote children's awareness of landmines and the rehabilitation of those who have been injured.

o Humanitarian mine clearance should be established as part of all peace agreements, incorporating strategies to develop national capacity for mine clearance.

o Countries and companies that profit from the sale of mines should be especially required to contribute to funds designated for humanitarian mine clearance and mine awareness programmes.

o Measures to reduce the proliferation and trade of landmines, such as consumer boycotts, should be explored.

o A technical workshop on mine awareness should be held by the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), UNICEF, UNESCO and involved NGOs, to assess lessons learned, promote best practices in child-focused mine awareness programmes and improve coordination, assessment and evaluation.


The imagination, ideals and energies of youth are vital for the continuing development of the societies in which they live. All cultures recognize adolescence as a highly significant period in which young people learn future roles and incorporate the values and norms of their societies. Adolescents face particular problems during periods of armed conflicts. They are at a time of life when they are undergoing many physical and emotional changes. Yet during or after wars, youth seldom receive any special attention or assistance.

During armed conflicts, as educational opportunities become more limited or even non-existent, adolescent boys and girls may become frightened, bored and frustrated. Military life may become the most attractive option, especially for children from impoverished and marginalized backgrounds and those who have become separated from their families. Young people often take up arms to gain power, and power can act as a very strong motivator in situations where people feel powerless and otherwise unable to acquire basic resources. Others end up as soldiers against their will. During conflicts, adolescent girls are particularly at risk for gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.

The extreme and often prolonged circumstances of armed conflict can interfere with identity development. As a result, many adolescents, especially those who have had severely distressing experiences, cannot foresee any future for themselves. They may view their lives very pessimistically, suffer from serious depression or even commit suicide. They may have lost their trust in people, and may not wish to seek help or support from adults. Sudden changes in family circumstances, such as the death or disappearance of parents, can leave young people without guidance, role models and sustenance.

Youth's role in rebuilding war-torn communities

Adolescents have special needs and special strengths, and they should be seen as survivors and active participants in creating solutions, not just as victims or problems. In order to ensure that their needs are met, young people should be involved in community-based relief, recovery and reconstruction programmes. This can be achieved through, for example, vocational and skills training that not only helps to augment youth's incomes, but also increases their sense of identity and self-worth in ways that enhance their psychosocial well-being. One particularly effective way to give adolescents a sense of meaning and purpose is to involve them in developing and implementing programmes for younger children in the community.

Protecting the most vulnerable family unit

Child-headed households may consist of "family units" of brothers and sisters who have been orphaned, abandoned, or separated accidentally from their parents, children of extended family members, or even unrelated children. Such households are headed by a minor, usually an adolescent girl. The needs of child-headed households for legal and social protection are especially acute. Such households are particularly vulnerable to exploitative labour and prostitution. Dilemmas have arisen in designing appropriate policy and programme responses, especially around the feasibility of foster arrangements. The principle of family unity, as safeguarded in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, must be the basis of all support for these children. One way to improve the well-being of child-headed households is to support Governments in creating laws that challenge discrimination against child-headed households in relation to custody, inheritance and property rights.

Some recommendations for action

o Programmes should place special emphasis on providing appropriate educational and recreational activities for adolescents affected by armed conflicts.

o Special efforts should be made for demobilized adolescent soldiers, such as projects which offer alternative livelihoods and promote their reintegration into their communities. Human resources development, including youth education, employment and training schemes, should be promoted.

o Intergovernmental bodies, United Nations agencies and other organizations should support Governments in strengthening national legislative frameworks challenging any aspect of discrimination against women, girls and child-headed households with particular respect to custody, inheritance and property rights.

o United Nations bodies and NGOs are urged to give urgent attention to the situation of child-headed households and develop policy and programme guidelines to ensure their protection and care.