At just 14, a young Ethiopian girl whom we will call “Sunshine” recalls a horror that she can barely describe without breaking out in tears. It occurred in November, when she was living with her aunt and sister in northern Ethiopia. The war with the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was raging, and fighters were in her village. They raided her home. But it was what Sunshine experienced next that causes her to shake visibly even months later. Sunshine is one of the 426 million children living in conflict zones globally who are vulnerable to sexual violence.
In its Weapon of War report, Save the Children estimated that no fewer than 72 million kids like Sunshine — that’s 1 in 6 — live 50 km (31 miles) or closer to conflicts where armed groups or forces have perpetrated sexual violence against children. “The number of children at risk of sexual violence committed by conflict actors is almost ten times higher today than in 1990,” the NGO stated. Save the Children said the number of kids at risk fluctuates from year to year, but the upward trend is very clear.
“In the most recent years we also see that a bigger share of armed actors who commit sexual violence in conflict also perpetrate it against children,” the report stated. It indicated that Somalia and South Sudan are among the six countries with the highest share of children living in conflict zones with reports of sexual violence perpetrated by conflict actors against children. Others in the global rating are Colombia, with 24% of all children in the country facing this risk, Iraq with 49% of all children at risk, Syria with 48% and Yemen at 83%.
For children, their age and gender play a significant role in their vulnerability. Adolescent girls are particularly at high risk of sexual violence in conflict settings. And the gruesome acts come with devastating consequences. Sexual violence happens whenever conflict erupts, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But no statistics will ever depict the true scale of the problem, because conflict affects the work of police and legal authorities.
As a result, rape and sexual violence often go unreported. The UN estimates that in conflict zones, for every one rape that is reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are not. Perpetrators can be military officers, militants, civilians, or workers in displacement camps. Esther Omam, executive director of Reach Out Cameroon told DW that conflict aggravates the phenomenon of sexual violence and births a huge uncertainty.
“As serious as the word serious means, sexual violence is growing in so large proportions, we fear for the future,” she said. Omam added that perpetrators include the military, drug addicts and men who want to satisfy their sexual urges.
Worldwide, sexual violence is fundamentally rooted in unequal power dynamics while people of all genders and ages are victims.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said there can be no winners among countless casualties in armed conflict, not least the women and girls victimized by militants who have weaponised sexual violence as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism. “Every new wave of warfare brings with it a rising tide of human tragedy, including new waves of war’s oldest, most silenced, and least-condemned crime,” Pramila Patten, sexual violence in conflict special representative, said on the UNFPA’s site.
Conflict-related sexual violence exacts an unspeakable toll on survivors, who are most likely to be civilians and not combatants. The Democratic Republic of Congo recorded the highest number of UN-verified incidents of conflict-related sexual violence last year, according to Pramila Patten’s report.