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December 8, 2005

GSPIA prof raises awareness of children born of war-time violence

Children in war-torn areas around the world have an advocate on the Pitt campus.

Assistant professor R. Charli Carpenter of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) is using her research to raise awareness of the issues faced by children who are born as the result of gender-based violence in war zones.

Carpenter presented her report, “Protecting Children Born of Sexual Violence and Exploitation in Conflict Zones: Existing Practice and Knowledge Gaps,” Nov. 23 to the Child Protection Unit of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The study, based on focus group discussions with humanitarian workers, concludes that more research is needed to find how best to help these children. Citing examples from Darfur, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the study states: “Evidence is emerging that as a group, children born of war face a range of potential barriers to the protection of their human rights in conflict and post-conflict settings.”

In the course of the discussions, participants disagreed on which children might be included in such a group, the advisability of singling out such children as a special category and the ethics of developing specific programs that could expose them to greater stigma than might otherwise occur.

In addition, it was difficult to single out an overarching need from the complex tangle of related issues. “For example, the neonatal health risks for babies born of rape are said to be linked to the use of HIV AIDS as a weapon of war. The status of such babies also is tied into the phenomenon of child soldiering, as ‘many of the mothers are children themselves,’ having been sexually enslaved by militias in civil wars around the globe. The question of whether children born of rape or exploitation are registered at birth connects to the problem of statelessness, already a concern for the humanitarian community. Other issue linkages made by focus group participants included reproductive health, trafficking, women’s rights and post-conflict justice mechanisms,” the study stated.

Carpenter’s work follows a 2001 report by the War and Children Identity Project in Bergen, Norway, that estimates that tens of thousands of children have been born of wartime rape or sexual exploitation in the past decade. The 2001 report goes on to estimate that the number of babies conceived worldwide in forced pregnancy campaigns or other forms of rape, those born to women held captive as sexual slaves of military troops and those exploited by foreign soldiers, peacekeepers or humanitarian workers could be as high as a half-million.

“My position tends to be that numbers are not the main issue: every child has a right to be protected from mistreatment and discrimination,” Carpenter said. “What we need data on is how effectively child protection initiatives in conflict zones are working to protect these children against particular harms, and how particular those harms actually are relative to what other children in similar conflict areas are facing. One thing that practitioners in the focus groups specifically asked for is evidence of what is working: How do communities mobilize already to protect children who are abandoned, and how do we support those efforts? How do we engage religious authorities to combat stigma? And then following up with families to see whether these efforts did have a positive effect.”

Based on anecdotal evidence and other reports, the study found such children often face stigma, discrimination, abandonment or even infanticide. In addition, they may face extreme financial hardship and a lack of secure family networks, leaving them vulnerable to becoming street children or being trafficked. As they grow up, they face issues regarding their legal status and citizenship and may be unable to locate information about their birth parents.

Although participants disagreed on all the details, it was concluded that more information must be gathered to determine the needs and vulnerabilities of such children in order to respond appropriately.

“The main problem is in gathering that data in a way that adheres to ethical standards and doesn’t publicly mark the children or their mothers as somehow different from the rest of the community. A lot of harm can be done by people going into violently divided societies with sensitive questions and inadequate safeguards to protect those vulnerable people who are being studied,” Carpenter said.

“My goal has been simply to make sure that humanitarians are thinking about this issue. It seems to me many are and more will in the future, as the humanitarian community and the general public gains a deeper understanding of the relationship between armed conflict and gender-based violence,” she said.

The National Science Foundation grant that funded the focus groups also includes money for the publication of a volume of essays on the issue.

“My next step is to make sure this book gets published and generates more thought on how to do the kind of research that’s needed to inform humanitarian policy in those areas,” Carpenter said.

A summary of the study is available on line at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 8

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