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Children in conflict at highest risk of violence since records began

Save the Children | London | 13 February 2020

"Today’s conflicts are becoming more dangerous for children and yet the world stands by as they are targeted with impunity. If the UK is serious about being a ‘global force for good’ it must help stop this war on children."

New analysis also reveals how conflict affects girls and boys differently:

  • Nine in ten child victims of sexual violence are girls
  • Boys are more often killed or maimed, abducted or recruited by armed group.

Wars and conflicts are intensifying and becoming more dangerous for children, according to a new report released by Save the Children.

Children in conflict are more likely than at any time since systematic records began to be killed or maimed, recruited, abducted, sexually abused, see their schools attacked, or have aid denied to them.1

The research revealed that 415 million children worldwide were living in conflict-affected areas in 2018 – a number that decreased slightly for the first time since 2013. But the number of reported grave violations—the worst crimes committed against children in war—increased.

Since 2010, the number of children living in conflict zones has increased by 34%. At the same time, the number of verified grave violations against them has risen by 170%.

This disturbing trend is one of the findings in ‘Stop the War on Children 2020: Gender Matters’, the organisation’s third annual report on children in conflict across the globe.

The aid agency also found that 149 million children were struggling to survive in high intensity conflict zones. That’s more than ten times the number of children in the UK2.

The report, launched ahead of the Munich Security Conference where world leaders gather to debate international security issues, contains a systematic analysis of how the six grave violations against children in conflict impact boys and girls differently.

Girls were far more likely to be raped or forced into child marriage than boys—87 percent of all verified cases of sexual violence were against girls, while 1.5 percent were boys. In 11 percent of cases gender was not recorded. Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo were the most dangerous countries for girls.

From 2005 to 2018, there were almost 20,000 verified cases of sexual violence against children. But that’s thought to be the tip of the iceberg. Sexual violence, which is often used as a tactic of war, is hugely underreported due to social barriers and stigma.

Eight year-old Naomi* from Democratic Republic of Congo was abducted and raped by a man from an armed group. Now she is afraid of being alone.

Naomi said: “While I was playing with my friends, a group of four men emerged from the mountains. One of them kidnapped me and drove into the field, and there he forced me to sleep with him. After doing what he wanted, he left. I was left alone in the field. I felt very bad. I couldn't stand up. A man who was passing by found me and brought me home.

“I dream of becoming a humanitarian. I would like to help children who are victims of violence.”

Boys were more at risk of being killed and maimed in war. Of verified cases, 44 percent were boys and 17 percent were girls. In the other cases gender was not recorded.

Shelling forced ten year-old Mahmoud’s* family from their home in Syria when he was just six months old. They have been fleeing attack after attack, from shelter to makeshift shelter, ever since. Around a year ago Mahmoud was hit by more shelling. Both his legs had to be amputated – one above the knee and one below.

Mahmoud said: “We were besieged and my family was hungry so I went to get them food. Then the shell hit me.

“They took me to hospital. I got scared that I lost my legs. I felt it, I felt that I didn’t have legs anymore.”

Six months later Mahmoud’s father was in hospital when it was attacked, and his father was killed. But with huge determination Mahmoud has made progress since his terrible injury and loss.

“I get dressed by myself, get changed by myself, wash my hands by myself, eat by myself and drink tea by myself. I’ve learned to do that.”

Adolescent boys were more likely to be targeted, however when girls are killed or badly injured, it is more often the result of the use of explosive weapons which kill indiscriminately in urban or populated areas by hitting homes, streets and busy marketplaces.

Boys are also more vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups and armed forces. Of the more than 2,500 children abducted by armed groups in 2018, 80 percent were boys.          

Altogether, at least 12,125 children were either killed or injured by conflict-related violence in 2018. That’s 13 percent more than the reported total the year before and Afghanistan was the most dangerous country for children. The number of reported attacks on schools and hospitals also rose, by around a third, to 1,892.

George Graham, Children and Armed Conflict Director at Save the Children, said: “Today’s conflicts are becoming more dangerous for children and yet the world stands by as they are targeted with impunity.

“If the UK is serious about being a ‘global force for good’ it must help stop this war on children. The UK has seats at some of the most world’s most powerful tables. It’s time to earn them by using this influence to make children off limits in war. The senseless destruction of children’s lives will continue unless all governments and warring parties act now to uphold international norms and standards, and make perpetrators answer for their crimes.

“Boys and girls suffer differently in war. Children will tell us what they need to recover and rebuild their lives. The UK and its partners need to listen and invest more in their future.”


Save the Children has spokespeople available for interview. With any enquiries please contact d.stewart@savethechildren.org.uk / +44 (0) 20 3763 0119 / +44 (0) 7831 650409 (24 hrs)

*name changed to protect identity


  • Download the report, Stop the War on Children 2020: Gender Matters
  • The report includes the most comprehensive collection of data on the number of children living in conflict-affected areas. It reveals that the ten worst countries for children living in conflict remain the same as 2017: Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia.
  • The report has been informed by background reports by PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo) on number of children living in conflict zones, and by Proteknon, on gender and conflict.
  • Syria comes out as particularly bad for children, with high numbers of grave violations against children and 99 % of children living in areas affected by conflict. Conflict is also worsening for children living in Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria, which respectively have the highest figures for the killing and maiming, sexual violence, and the recruitment and use of children by armed forces or armed groups.
  • In 2018, slightly fewer children lived in conflict affected areas than the year before (415 million against 429 million in 2017. 149 million of them lived in High intensity conflict zones, which are areas where more than 1,000 battle-related deaths are recorded in a year.
  1. The UN started recording the six grave violations against children in conflict in 2005. The six grave violations are: killing and maiming, recruitment, abduction, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of aid. In 2018, the number of these violations was the highest ever.
  2. Office for National Statistics - Overview of the UK population: August 2019. 14,051,585 children age 0 – 17 in the UK

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