University of Pittsburgh
November 28, 2005

Pitt Professor: Children Born of Rape and Exploitation in Conflict Zones May Be Particularly Vulnerable

Study finds more questions than answers about appropriate humanitarian response
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH-Children born as the result of sexual violence and exploitation may face particular risks in conflict zones, according to humanitarian workers interviewed as part of a National Science Foundation-funded study led by University of Pittsburgh faculty member R. Charli Carpenter.

The final report of that study argues that evaluating and mitigating such risks should be a priority for child protection advocates in emergencies, but points to a lack of consensus in the humanitarian sector regarding how to do so in the best interests of the children. Carpenter, an assistant professor in Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), presented the report to the Child Protection Unit of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Nov. 23, and her recommendations are being disseminated to nongovernmental organizations (NGO) working with children in conflict zones.

In four separate focus groups with practitioners from major humanitarian agencies and NGOs, Carpenter sought to gauge humanitarian workers' understanding of and response to the particular vulnerabilities of children born to rape survivors and exploited women and girls in areas like Darfur, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Our main concern was to ask those who work with children in conflict zones whether these particular children were benefiting adequately from existing child protection initiatives," says Carpenter. "The answer from practitioners seems to be, 'We don't have enough data to know one way or the other.' But just because there aren't programs for these children doesn't mean their needs are necessarily being neglected. It can also mean that there is a fear that specific attention might do more harm than good."

The complete results of the focus group consultations are outlined in the report, released by GSPIA, titled "Protecting Children Born of Sexual Violence and Exploitation in Conflict Zones: Existing Practice and Knowledge Gaps." (available in pdf form at at An abbreviated version of the report also is available through Pitt's Ford Institute of Human Security.

The study cites a report from Norway's War and Children Identity Project, estimating that tens of thousands of children have been born in the last decade as a result of rape or sexual exploitation by enemy forces, occupation soldiers, peacekeepers, and even aid workers, setting the total number of all living "children born of war" at 500,000. But Carpenter argues that such numbers are not necessarily reliable, as no systematic data have been gathered on the scope of this population and because numbers are known to be under-reported by survivors due to stigma or inflated by governments for propaganda purposes. "Ultimately, it shouldn't matter whether we're talking about 100 children or half a million," she asserts. "Every child has a right to be protected from discrimination or mistreatment."

Carpenter's team found that humanitarian workers' understanding of these children's needs converged with anecdotal reports about the problems such children faced. In particular, participants mentioned these children's vulnerability to social exclusion and stigma from the societies into which they were born. This underlying phenomenon can put children of wartime rape and exploitation at greater risk of physical and psycho-social health problems; lack of access to resources; risk of separation, abuse, or neglect by caretakers; and early childhood mortality, including as a result of infanticide.

Yet simultaneously, the report found that almost none of the practitioners were able to point to specific efforts to address the particular needs of these children or to provide evidence that the children's needs were being met by broader programming. "While this does not mean that no such initiatives exist," the report states, "it is clear that a concern for the category of this war-affected child has not been effectively mainstreamed into humanitarian advocacy and programming, compared to others such as child soldiers, separated children, or HIV/AIDS orphans."

But the report found this policy gap is due in part to a lack of consensus on how to best protect such children. Aid workers disagreed over whether specific attention to children born of wartime violence might do more harm than good, given the possibility that greater visibility could exacerbate the stigma they face or create backlash from other conflict-affected groups. Indeed, practitioners were especially concerned about initiatives that would single out children born of rape and exploitation through the creation of special centers or programs, citing examples of past practice where creating special programs for rape survivors only put them at greater risk.

The first step in developing programs to assist these children and their families is discovering the extent and scope of their needs, which vary by culture and context, Carpenter says, and she recommends more in-depth study of the issue. "We have no means of ensuring that these children are being adequately protected in conflict zones if we do not explicitly ask the question," she says. "At the same time, it is vital to do so-to gather data, plan emergency operations, and ensure these children benefit from existing programs-without exposing specific children and their families to additional stigma."

The report suggests that practical steps to protect children of rape in places like Darfur could include the provision of adequate reproductive health and postnatal services for all new mothers in emergencies, as well as long-term psycho-social assistance for survivors of gender-based violence. Stigma against older children might be counteracted through rituals similar to those being used in reintegration programs for child soldiers. "What practitioners seem unanimous about is that these children do not need special orphanages or other programs that would set them apart from the rest of the population," Carpenter emphasized, warning that negative side-effects have been known to result from the good intentions of donors and concerned citizens.