Children and the ravages of war

17-11-2009 Interview

To mark the 20th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions, respectively, the ICRC has issued a new brochure on children and war. ICRC child protection adviser, Kristin Barstad, talks about the plight of children during war and what the organization does to protect and assist them.

What makes children in war particularly vulnerable and at high risk?  

War makes everybody potentially vulnerable. Although children show incredible strength and resilience, their young age makes them more vulnerable than adults. War exposes children to a whole host of risks – some of them unimaginable. The most obvious ones include the risk of orphanage, death, injury, displacement or separation from family. Losing access to health services also puts children at great risk as this can mean death or long-term effects following a simple injury or illness that has not been or cannot be cured.

A child without adult care is at risk of neglect and all kinds of abuse. For example, children may become easy targets for armed groups or forces looking for new recruits. They may be at risk of being trafficked. Additionally, armed conflict brings about general destitution that leaves many children with no choice but to take to the streets, begging or doing odd jobs – often very hard and underpaid – simply to survive. Of course, the risks differ depending on the age and sex of the child. Older children are more likely to survive on their own, but often face greater risks of abuse.

 What specific needs do children in war have, compared to women, men or elderly people?  

The specific needs of children depend on their age. However, children are all developing individuals in need of sufficient food, water and adequate health services. Vaccination is particularly impor tant. While this is obviously important for adults as well, the lack of sufficient or adequate food, for example, can be detrimental to the physical and mental development of a young person. 

Children living in the ruins of what was once their house in Gaza. Children need the protection and support of their families, in peacetime and in wartime. They also have the right to education, and, in many situations, access to education offers children a degree of protection and the life skills that are important in a situation of conflict and destitution. That said, being at school may actually expose children to additional risks. Schools are sometimes attacked directly, and may be targeted by armed groups or forces looking for new recruits.

Children who have been separated from their families during conflict need their parents back. They must, therefore, be given the opportunity to search for their parents and be reunited with them. While efforts are made to trace their families, these very vulnerable children need access to shelter, food, water and other basic services – in addition, of course, to support and protection provided by an adult.

How does the ICRC respond to these specific needs?  

Children caught up in war are a priority for the ICRC and, naturally, they benefit from almost all our programmes. A number of ICRC programmes are tailored to the needs of children.

I cannot think of anything as traumatizing as being separated from your parents at a young age, not knowing where they are and being deprived of their protection in the hostile environment of war. In situations where families have been torn apart, the ICRC, therefore, places high priority on tracing and reuniting family members. While we provide this service to all family members who have been separated, we give priority to children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families. 

In 2008, the ICRC registered close to 2,000 children separated from their families worldwide. This figure includes 347 children released by armed forces or armed groups. We did this in close collaboration with the national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies.

Internally displaced people in Iligan, Philippines. As guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL), the ICRC is naturally concerned about the issue of child recruitment by armed forces and armed groups. We try to fight this phenomenon in several ways. Firstly, we put a lot of emphasis on preventing recruitment in the first place. This is done by working directly, not only with those recruiting children, but also with the children and their communities.

Secondly, the ICRC helps develop the legal standards that regulate this phenomenon, and raises awareness of them among armed forces, armed groups and the civilian population.

Thirdly, when it is in the interest of the children who have been recruited, the ICRC intervenes with armed groups or forces in question, asking them to release children in their ranks and return them to their families.

Fourthly, the ICRC is heavily involved in reuniting demobilized children with their families. This, for example, is the case in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan.

Children unfortunately also become victims of atrocities such as sexual violence. The ICRC has adopted a multidisciplinary response to the devastating effects of sexual violence. It provides the victims with timely medical and psychosocial support, and where necessary, helps meet their economic needs. At the same time, the ICRC raises awareness to such violence, works to help prevent it and protect children from it.

During its detention visits, the ICRC often comes across children. We always pay particular attention to their situation, remind the authorities of the children’s rights, if necessary, and give the children the opportunity to maintain contact with their families. As with adults, the ICRC provides children with specific assistance if the detaining authorities are unable to do so.

What does IHL say about the protection of children in war?  

The protection of children in wartime is enshrined in international humanitarian law, which is binding for both States and non-governmental armed groups. As civilians, children are protected under IHL in two different situations. Firstly, if they fall into the hands of enemy forces they must be protected against any form of abuse. Secondly, civilians not taking part in hostilities must in no circumstances be the target of attacks. Given the particular vulnerability of children, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 lay down a series of rules according them special protection. No fewer than 25 articles in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols specifically mention children.

Human rights laws also contain specific provisions on the protection of children against the effects of armed conflict. This is true of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

Parties to a conflict must respect IHL and children's rights. Fighting must not take place in the midst of civilians. War can be conducted without violating the fundamental rights of the civilian population! Those who do not respect IHL must be held accountable so that they see that vio lating law has consequences.

Humanitarian agencies must be given unhindered access to the civilian population – including children - in order to bring the humanitarian assistance needed.



Eastern DRC. Kristin Barstad visits children in a  

Eastern DRC. Kristin Barstad visits children in a "child-friendly" section of a camp for displaced people.

Children living in the ruins of what was once their house in Gaza. 

Children living in the ruins of what was once their house in Gaza.
© ICRC / v-p-il-e-01776

Palestinian refugee camp, Tyre, Lebanon. A teenager victim of cluster bombing. 

Palestinian refugee camp, Tyre, Lebanon. A teenager victim of cluster bombing.
© ICRC / VII/Franco Pagetti / v-p-lb-e-01099

Internally displaced people in Iligan, Philippines. 

Internally displaced people in Iligan, Philippines.
© ICRC / R. Tolentino / v-p-ph-e-00100h

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