Beyond “Women and Children” – Children's Agency in Armed Conflict

13 April 2021   ·   Sofie Lilli Stoffel

Children play vital roles in armed conflicts and determine the chances for sustained peace. Germany should treat children not as passive victims but as full-fledged agents of peace and conflict. To do so, the federal government should fund research on which child-focused peacebuilding interventions work best and support children’s inclusion in all stages of peace processes.

In Germany’s guidelines for “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace”, children are only mentioned a handful of times. When children are discussed, it is only in the context of UN resolutions on children and youth in conflict. The UN Security Council’s 2015 resolution on youth, peace and security was an important milestone toward the meaningful participation of youth, which they defined as people between the ages of 18 and 29. However, children younger than 18 years old are not recognized as stakeholders in the same manner. For example, the UN Security Council’s resolutions on children in armed conflict focus on children’s need for protection without addressing their unique perspectives and agency.

Children are often lumped into two broad categories in the peace and security sector: passive civilians (“women and children”) who are the collateral victims of conflict, or abducted child soldiers forced into war against their will. By diluting the role of children in conflict, this framing not only dismisses children’s agency, but also infantilizes women and imposes inadequate assumptions of helplessness on both groups.

Germany’s interministerial strategies governing the implementation of the guidelines also apply this limited perspective, as they refer to children almost exclusively in connection with civilian women. But successful peacebuilding requires the active participation of all relevant actors. In 2019, 426 million children worldwide were growing up in conflict zones, of which 160 million were living in areas of heavy combat. In these situations, children are often deliberately targeted by conflict actors, help to actively shape the conflict’s development and ultimately determine the long-term outlook for peace. Because of their experiences as targets, actors in hostilities, and social stabilizers, children have specific needs and unique agency — and failure to address those needs can fundamentally block sustainable peace.

To effectively contribute to conflict resolution, Germany should invest in research that analyzes which child-focused peacebuilding interventions work best. In addition, Berlin should gather data on the different roles of children within specific conflict settings, and based on this information, support measures that successfully empower children and help build peace.  

Children as Targets in Warfare

Contrary to popular belief, children are not just collateral damage in armed conflicts: many conflict actors target them deliberately. The UN verified around 200 instances of grave human rights violations against children in 2010 — a number that had risen by more than 170 percent by 2018. In some cases, this violence is used as a tactic of war — for example, children in Syria have been tortured to gather intelligence about their families or were used as human shields by government forces as they sacked cities in the Northwest region. And because children often symbolize the future of a particular ethnic, religious or ideological group, violence against children can be used as a form of eradicating entire populations, such as during the Rwandan genocide. Peacebuilding measures need to acknowledge the suffering children face as targets in conflict contexts, and rebuild their trust in the state and society without reducing them to helpless, passive victims.  

Children as Actors in Armed Conflict

Children can also actively shape ongoing conflicts. The number of child soldiers has more than doubled since 2012, with almost 30,000 verified instances of child recruitment across 17 countries in 2019. It is important to remember that these are not exclusively forced recruitments. A lack of social services and limited access to basic necessities can motivate children to willingly join armed groups that provide this support — not to mention the feeling of empowerment that comes with playing an active role in conflict. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has established a social services system that includes schools and hospitals, as a way of recruiting children into their military training programs. These programs are reported to be “a feeder for Hezbollah’s armed force(s)” once the recruits come of age. Just as with adult soldiers, if children believe they must join armed factions to sustain their lives and provide for their future, the violence is unlikely to end.

Children who are not combatants can also impact the outcome of a conflict. In wartime, many children must assume the roles of the adults in their communities who have been injured, killed or are away fighting. They raise younger siblings, earn income for their families and act as substitute farmers to raise crops for their local area. Children play a significant role in maintaining community structures inside conflict zones and — ultimately — are the key to long-term societal stability. This is why sustainable peacekeeping requires the inclusion of children in post-conflict structures.  

The Long-Term Impact of Conflict on Children and Their Societies

Whether children are the targets or perpetrators of violence, children’s experience of and participation in conflict influences their personality and behavior as adults. Since brain development predominantly occurs in early childhood, the impact of war is very different for children than it is for young people over the age of 18. Children who are exposed to or involved in atrocities are much more likely to resort to violence later in life, and run greater risk of following violent ideologies in the future. In cases of severe trauma, an individual’s physical response to stress may be permanently altered to revert to violent aggression in the event of anxiety or fear. Exposing children to repeated brutalities increases a society’s risk of returning to violent conflict, even after the original perpetrators are no longer around. For this reason, addressing children’s trauma and lived experiences during and after a conflict is a crucial factor in breaking the cycle of conflict.  

Fund Research on Effective Child-Focused Peacebuilding

Children’s unique roles during conflict and in shaping post-war societies make them integral to successful peacebuilding. However, there is little information on what types of interventions are most effective at engaging children in the conflict resolution process as a part of sustainable peace. In 2015, the Global Partnership for Children and Youth in Peacebuilding published a large-scale evaluation of child and youth participation in peace efforts — but it only addressed the cases in Nepal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Colombia. To understand how to best incorporate children’s perspectives, Germany should fund and initiate research to analyze how well existing projects empower children and contribute to the overall peacebuilding processes. As an entry point, Germany could support the Global Partnership for Children and Youth in Peacebuilding to expand their initial study to other locations.

In addition, Germany should strive to gather reliable data on children’s roles in specific conflict and post-conflict regions. How many children act as heads of households? What percentage of children are targeted and injured during conflicts? How many children have developed severe cases of traumatization? Out of the soldiers that go into disarmament programs, how many are under 18 years old? While difficult to obtain, this information can enable the German government to make realistic, case-based assessments that allow them to prioritize specific measures and allocate the appropriate funds to programs on the ground.  

High Time to Put Children’s Needs First

While some local projects have made progress in empowering children in the peacebuilding process, meaningful state support for such initiatives is severely lacking. To turn the tide, Berlin needs to do more than push for more research — it must act according to the results. The federal government should develop a peacebuilding and conflict resolution strategy that addresses children’s needs and includes them as a distinct actor. To maximize its impact, it should advocate within the EU for a change of perspective vis-à-vis children and for increased funding for research and projects that have proven successful as well as cooperate with other EU members on child participation initiatives in (post-)conflict settings.

There are already a number of examples where Germany’s intervention could — rather than repeating calls for protection measures that play on the perception of children as passive victims — better reflect children’s agency. In post-war Rwanda, for instance, children voiced their frustration over being sidelined from the gacacas (traditional judicial system), a practice that can create resentment and hinders long-term peace. In situations where children have fought in conflicts, Germany should advocate for the formal peace-making, peacekeeping and justice processes to consult child combatants on all peace agreements to ensure their perspectives are included. In post-genocide Rwanda and post-conflict Uganda, orphan heads-of-households as important pillars of social order struggled to obtain legal ownership of the land they lived on despite the fact that they were the main breadwinners for their families. In such cases, the German government should support programs that incorporate children’s social and economic demands. 

Finally, Germany should help address the enduring psychosocial effects of conflict on communities. There are already several successful initiatives in this field: notable age and trauma-sensitive education and psychological services projects include UNICEF’s “Learning for Peace” program, which successfully eased tensions between the DRC’s Pygmy and Bantu peoples, as well as TPO Uganda’s psychosocial programs which have shown success in mitigating the negative effects of conflict experiences.

If Germany’s investments in conflict resolution and peacebuilding are to create a lasting impact, these measures must reach beyond the present situation and impact the next generation. To this end, the German government should move beyond the “women and children” paradigm and help amplify the voices of the millions of children growing up in conflict.

This is the first piece in a series of articles on the PeaceLab blog which give insights into the roles of children and youth in conflict and post-conflict situations around the world.

The article is based on a previous piece on children in peacebuilding that was published on The Policy Corner.

Jugendpartizipation Children Peacebuilding

Sofie Lilli Stoffel

Sofie Lilli Stoffel is a research assistant with the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). She focuses on the role of children in conflict and post-conflict situations and is an editor of the PeaceLab blog. @sofie_lilli