Explosive violence attacks the very fabric of a family unit. It kills and injures parents and carers, rendering them unable to provide the nurturing and protection children need children. AOAV data shows that in 2019 alone, 27,466 adults were killed and injured by explosive weapons- many of whom will be parents, grandparents, and carers.
In this report we seek to examine the impacts – direct and indirect – of explosive violence on how children are cared for. We find that, perhaps even predictably, the loss of parental support, through death, injury, or mental illness, exposes a child to the risk of homelessness, abduction, sexual violence, and recruitment to armed groups.
Explosive weapons and orphans
Over the last decade at least one million children have been orphaned as a direct result of armed conflict. A 2019 study of African conflicts between 1990 to 2016 showed that the risk of orphanhood increased by nearly 6% following exposure to armed conflicts within 50km of their residence. However, reliable data is difficult to obtain and this figure is likely to be much higher. The American Academy of Paediatrics has commented that the absence of reliable data and tendency to aggregate child and adult data’ in means there are ‘no pooled estimates’ for the number of children orphaned by conflict globally. An added complication is the critical lack of a universal definition of ‘orphan’ within the space, with some organisations including UNICEF defining it as a child who ‘has lost one or both parents’, while others define it as having lost both parents. The concept of social orphanhood refers to children neglected by their parents even though they are alive.
Men are disproportionately killed and injured by explosive violence. AOAV data shows that when the gender is known, men account for between 82% and 90% of adult civilian casualties. It is thus reasonable to assume that a higher proportion of fathers than mothers are killed by explosive weapons. The loss of a father often creates difficulties for families due to the particular vulnerabilities associated with widowhood, especially in patriarchal societies. In Afghanistan as many as two million women who have been widowed, the majority of whom live below the poverty line, lacking financial security that the associated familial support provides. When mothers remarry, their pre-existing children can sometimes find themselves in a precarious position; either being looked after by elderly relatives or heading households and taking on financial responsibilities.
The death of a father can even effect a child even before they are born. A study of prenatal loss of fathers in WWI determined a significant reduction in lifespan of individuals whose fathers died before, not after, their birth – this was thought to be due to maternal psychological stress in pregnancy.
Impact on children
Separation from parents, especially during conflict, has been shown to have a detrimental impact on a child’s physical, psychological and psychosocial health. A 2010 study on the effect of a parent’s death on child survival in rural Bangladesh revealed that the probability of a child living until age ten was only 24% for children whose mothers had died before their tenth birthday. This is compared to an 89% survival for children whose mothers remained alive. The findings were explained as most probably due to the abrupt cessation of breastfeeding and an absence of maternal care. The Helsinki birth cohort study of children who were separated from their parents for a period during WWII, demonstrated that separation during childhood may alter a child’s stress physiology much later in adult life.
Children whose parents or caregivers have been exposed to armed conflict and explosive violence are at increased risk to abuse and neglect. In conflict areas today, an estimated 40 million children under the age of 15 are victims of abuse and neglect. Studies from East Timor, Uganda, and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, found that caregivers who suffer from stress or have a mental health disorders related to their exposure to armed conflict, are more likely to abuse their own children. This extends to military personnel exposed to explosive violence serving overseas; severe child maltreatment by US military personnel was found to be higher post-deployment than before they were deployed.
Burden of childcare
When parents have been killed or injured by explosive violence, children assume adult responsibilities, including caring for ill or disabled parents and taking on the mantle of the main economic provider. This can mean working illegally to feed the family, especially in countries with high levels of poverty. In AOAV’s interview with Giorgia Doná, Professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the University of East London, she described how unaccompanied children form “fictive families”. In the absence of parental guidance, children “protect one another, they comfort one another, they exchange ideas, they move together”.
Research conducted in 2008 showed how households with orphans were more likely to have an increase in the ‘dependency ratio”, whereby the incomes of fewer adults (or children) must sustain more dependents, resulting in increased economic vulnerability.
Housing and displacement
Funding for orphanages is often insufficient; several provinces in the east and centre of Afghanistan were reported to have not a single orphanage. Where orphanages exist, the care provided is questionable, a report into orphanages in Sanaa, the Houthi capital of Yemen, showed they suffered from poor maintenance and hygiene standards, and lacked basic necessities.
Unaccompanied children who have been displaced by explosive violence are one of the most vulnerable groups of refugees. As of 2017, an estimated 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children are in transit globally (though these children are alone, but they are not necessarily all orphans). A UN report from that year documents the threats faced by unaccompanied migrants including abuse by officials and human traffickers. According to the UN, these children are particularly vulnerable due to their “double status” as both minors and migrants. Migrant children are also the least likely migrant demographic to seek official help, including medical assistance. The number of unaccompanied and separated children who applied for asylum worldwide nearly tripled in 2015 to 98,400. Of the nearly 90,000 unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum in Europe in 2015, at least 10,000 have gone missing.
The strong emotional response that the suffering of a child evokes has been exploited in a displacement context. Reports emerged in 2019 that women in displacement camps camps in Syria hid orphans or claimed them as their own to either preserve the next generation of militants or maximise their own chances of repatriation.
Among those orphaned and displaced by explosive violence, many are not officially registered with authorities. This is highlighted by the case of orphans in displacement camps for people associated with Islamic State in north east Syria. In May 2019, the UN estimated around 3,000 unaccompanied children were in the Al-Hol displacement camp with “some of them also taking care of siblings”. The overwhelming majority of these orphans were unregistered, making it challenging for authorities to identify their age, risks, needs, and rights to protection.
Even in refugee families, where parents exist and are able, there is a lack of funding, healthcare and maternal care to ensure that parents are able to be present and provide sufficient support for their children.
Girls and Sexual Violence
Orphans, particularly those fleeing conflict, are at increased risk of sexual violence. Nine in ten of these child victims will be girls. In child-headed households, girls are more likely to have to engage in “transactional sex in order to gain essential items or contribute to household income”. A UN report on conflict related sexual violence highlighted a growing trend of sexual violence against boys and girls in conflict zones, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. The same report claimed that the risk of sexual violence is “compounded when children are unaccompanied during migration”. Save the Children also noted that women heads of households are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence by “authorities, armed groups, smugglers or traffickers”, this dynamic is exacerbated further when considering “girl heads of household or unaccompanied and separated girls”.
Social isolation Social shunning has been observed in children orphaned by explosive violence. Islamic State’s rule of Mosul and the subsequent intensive airstrike campaign to expel the group left at least 13,000 orphans in the city. Orphans whose parents were members of Islamic State continue to face acute risks as they are ostracised by their parents’ association with the group. Mosul orphanage held 17 new-borns assumed to be abandoned by their mothers because of the stigma of raising the child of a militant.
Recruitment to Armed Groups
In some cases, the childcare vacuum is filled by armed groups. Without protection mechanisms or familial support orphans are particularly vulnerable to recruitment to militant groups. There is a history of orphan recruitment to armed groups, most notably observed in intra-state conflict in Africa in the 1990s, including in Sierra Leone and in Uganda. Such cases of orphan recruitment have been reported in conflicts with high explosive violence, including Yemen (by a variety of actors,) Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
We know that a child’s ability to adapt to the aftermath of a traumatic event is highly dependent on their level of social support, primarily from their family. Explosive violence robs children of this parental support and protection, increasing the threats to children in armed conflict. The absence of data on childcare and orphans in conflict is a grim reflection of how those who are most vulnerable can be lost within the system of care.