* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It is absolutely critical that we do not harm and or re-traumatise children, but they have a right to tell their own stories
Every year, thousands of women are subject to the unimaginable agony of sexual violence in conflict. As victims and survivors, they are rightly protected under international human rights law. But what happens to their children, born of violent, brutal rape?
Children have for too long been at the margins of these discussions. And for children born of war, recognition has been a long time coming.
Today (19 June), on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, they are finally taking centre stage.
The UN announced this year’s theme as “The Plight and Rights of Children Born of War”. In legal terms, a child born as a result of rape is not the victim of a crime, and yet they often face extreme challenges, and even persecution.
There are several reasons why children have so far been less visible in this discourse. On a practical level, the births of children resulting from rape are often not registered – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, a child cannot be registered without the father’s name. But perhaps the main reason is the stigma faced by both children and their mothers. Shame is a powerful silencer.
Children born of wartime rape are often treated abhorrently. Fears abound that they will ‘taint’ other children, even that they are evil. Many are barred from going to school, and experience physical violence. In Uganda last year I met Sarah*, who was sexually abused by an uncle after escaping the armed group she was born into. Aged 14, she gave birth to a child of her own.
Countless children like her have suffered the unimaginable consequences of the failure to protect them. Michael* was born in the bush in Sudan after his mother was abducted and forced to marry a soldier. Aged eight he escaped and returned to a ‘home’ he had never known – the village his mother was from. Two years later he was shot in the head by a man who told him he would never belong. Miraculously, he survived and is now supported by World Vision.
One young boy in Uganda, also born in captivity, told me “the best thing to do is to hide who you are… then move to Kampala where no one knows you.” In a culture where identity is closely linked to community, it’s a shocking message.
It’s impossible to know how many children are forced to hide their past for fear of the repercussions. Until we end the stigma of being raped and shift the blame to the perpetrators, the true scale of the issue will never be known.
While many children born of war continue to remain in the shadows, we have hope that international leaders will offer them the protection they deserve, and that the dialogue will begin to be shaped by the children themselves.
It is absolutely critical that we do not harm and or re-traumatise children, but they have a right to tell their own stories. How else can we understand their plight? Who better to know what needs to be done?
World Vision is working in countries including the DRC and Uganda to address the stigma faced by survivors of sexual violence and children born of rape. Working alongside them, we have seen attitudes changed and increased acceptance by communities.
And yet an untold number of children continue to face a dire future – with spiralling cycles of poverty which can last generations. Without a voice, or anywhere to belong, they may themselves get caught up in violent conflict, and never see the reparations they are due.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Erica Hall si technical policy lead at World Vision UK.