How armed conflict impacts children

Updated Aug 15, 2023
As armed conflict rages around across the planet, children pay the highest price of all. Every year, more girls and boys suffer its cruelties. In 2021 alone, the number of countries experiencing armed conflict was the highest in 30 years.

Armed conflict strikes children with the worst life can offer. It destroys their homes and murders their loves ones. It forces children into combat, and subjects girls to the horror of rape. In 2020 more than 19,000 children suffered recruitment and use, killing and maiming, sexual violence and abduction.

That same year, more than 26,000 girls and boys experienced grave violations including attacks on schools and hospitals, says the UN. Thousands were denied access to humanitarian help.

Here in Canada, millions have watched tragic events unfold in Ukraine. At the same time, millions of children in the world’s most fragile regions endure the brutal impact of armed conflict in their own nations.

“From Afghanistan to Mali, to South Sudan, Yemen and beyond, warring parties are flouting one of the most basic rules of war: the protection of children,” notes the United Nations.

In this article, we’ll explore the impact of armed conflict on the world’s children – both today and for their futures. We’ll look at why it’s on the rise globally. And we’ll tell you how you can help.
  1. Where are children at greatest risk from armed conflict?
  2. How does armed conflict directly impact the world’s children?
  3. What are the long-term impacts of armed conflict on children?
  4. Why are girls so acutely impacted by armed conflict?
  5. Are the impacts on children in armed conflict getting worse?
  6. How is World Vision helping children impacted by armed conflict?
  7. How can I help children impacted by armed conflict?

1. Where are children at greatest risk from armed conflict?

At the close of 2021, the UN highlighted regions where armed conflict had placed civilian lives in danger. And wherever people are in crisis, children are the most vulnerable of all – whether they’re caught in the crossfire, forced to participate, or harmed in the extensive aftermath.

Those regions were: Mali and the Central African Republic, where children and adults remained at high risk from violence of armed conflict, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.

In Yemen, a little girl bends to wash her hands from a small jug of water poured by a woman. Around them, the landscape is bleak.
In Yemen, access to essentials, such as water, is severely compromised due to ongoing armed conflict. In October 2021, UNICEF reported that 10,000 children had been killed or maimed since fighting started in March 2015. Photo: Karam Kamal

Other danger zones included:
  • Iraq and Niger, the scenes of deadly bomb and terror attacks.  
  • Israel and Palestine, where escalating violence killed hundreds of people.
  • South Sudan, where a decade after the country declared independence from Sudan, armed conflict and other factors have left more children in humanitarian need than ever before.
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, where another year of violent attacks against civilians devastated thousands of young lives.
Venezuela and Honduras, where fighting involves violent organized crime groups and children are often caught in the crossfire. Thousands have fled to countries like Colombia, where they’re exposed to violence from further armed conflict.

In Colombia, a young girl from Venezuela kneels on the rough ground, opening her backpack.
Desperate and undocumented Venezuelans who cross into Colombia for food, medicine and work are exposed to abuses resulting from the ongoing armed conflict there. Photo: Sebastian Portilla Avellaneda

Smaller wars, younger people

Modern-day warfare doesn’t happen in remote battlefields, with children at a safe distance away. With a few exceptions, armed conflict no longer plays out across borders, between nations.

In 2022, most armed conflict takes place within a specific country, often raging through children’s own neighbourhoods.

The civilian casualty rate as a result of armed conflict can approach 90 per cent, depending on variables we’ll explore below. Between 2004 and 2020, more than 104,000 children were verified as killed or maimed in situations of armed conflict, reports UNICEF.

A woman wearing a head scarf pushes a girl in a wheelchair through the bombed-out streets of Mosul, Iraq.
“I ran from my home, terrified, and that’s when the bomb fell beside me,” said 10-year-old Raja in Iraq. The bomb destroyed one hand and injured her legs and feet. Raja is receiving psychosocial support, medical care and special equipment with the help of organizations like World Vision. Photo: Brett Tarver

2. How does armed conflict directly impact the world’s children?

When bombs and bullets are flying, a child’s life can change in an instant – whether they themselves are struck, or whether it’s a family member. Here are the Six Grave Violations against children in armed conflict, according to the United Nations: 
  1. Killing and maiming of children.
  2. Recruitment or use of children as soldiers.
  3. Sexual violence against children.
  4. Abduction of children.
  5. Attacks against schools or hospitals.
  6. Denial of humanitarian access for children.
The bombs and bullets of war ruthlessly kill, maim and disable children. Years after battles are over, landmines murder and mutilate children innocently playing in fields or walking to fetch water.

Some children are recruited or abducted to become child soldiers, placed directly in the firing line. Human Rights Watch reports that thousands of children – some as young as eight – are currently serving. Others are forced to labour as cooks or porters for armed militia, or for girls, sex slaves to soldiers.

After parents or caregivers are killed, imprisoned or forced to fight, children might have no one to protect or provide for them. They may be left to fend for themselves in a chaotic reality where they’re separated from school or community supports.

A boy in a camouflage-coloured T-shirt stands in a cornfield, much of his face obscured by a leaf.
In South Sudan, children conscripted or abducted to serve with armed groups can begin new lives at this recovery centre. They rest, receive counselling and train in livelihoods like carpentry, electrical work and tailoring. The government centre is supported by World Vision and UNICEF. Photo: Oscar Durand

Indirect effects of armed conflict

The indirect impacts of armed conflict can result in three to five times more deaths among children than do direct combat or victimization. Here are some examples: 
  • Children face malnutrition and illnesses: The younger the child, the more vulnerable to death from a variety of preventable illnesses, often hastened by extreme malnutrition. Here are some contributing factors:
  1. COVID-19 has not only increased the threat of illness for children globally. Its presence has hindered authorities’ ability to prevent and investigate grave violations against children in armed conflict.
  2. Armed groups often capture or destroy water sources, leaving children to drink unsafe water from ponds and streams. As conflict drags on, water systems fail without repairs and maintenance.
  3. Communities scatter to find safety, leaving livelihoods behind. Food security plummets and food prices skyrocket. Militia may use food as a weapon of war, stealing or killing livestock and destroying farmland. Lack of nutritious food leaves children (those under age five, developing in the womb or relying on mother’s milk in particular) at the mercy of malnutrition.
  4. Armed groups often aim to weaken communities by taking over or destroying medical clinics and hospitals. Trained professionals might be killed or forced to flee. Lack of critical care leaves children vulnerable to death from malnutrition, as well as from illnesses that are both preventable and curable
  5. Babies whose mothers cannot access critical pre- and post-natal services may be born prematurely, stillborn or underweight. Those who survive the first few weeks may rapidly become sick or malnourished.

A mother holds a young child, who stares listlessly toward the camera. A scale is in the background.
In Darfur (Sudan), the effects of armed conflict and extreme drought have hit young children the hardest. Naima, 16 months old, should weigh nearly 10 kgs. Due to extreme malnutrition, she weighs just half that, and is vulnerable to a spectrum of deadly illnesses. Photo: Lucy Murunga            “War and violence create a vicious dysfunctional cycle, a deadly trap that primarily impacts the children,” writes a specialized team of social psychiatrists in Psychiatric Times.
            Girls and boys may wake screaming from nightmares, or be dragged down by depression, substance abuse and feelings of utter hopelessness. Many struggle to relate to those around them or participate in day-to-day activities like learning.
           “[Children] might not have the words to express what has happened to them,” says the Psychiatric Times article. “Instead, they share their stories through behaviors like lashing out or shutting down.”

In Iraq, a child survivor draws a photo of what he experienced in his community.
Children who struggle to communicate their experiences verbally often benefit from drawing them, instead. This Iraqi refugee child received care and counselling at a World Vision centre in Jordan. Photo: John Schenk

3. What are the long-term impacts of armed conflict on children?

For children, repercussions of armed conflict can be broad-ranging and affect them for a lifetime. Here are some examples:
  • Children face loss of education: Disruption and destruction of education is one of the most damaging effects of armed conflict. Children fleeing their homes and growing up in camps may not have schooling for months or even years. Sometimes, education ends altogether.
           Education is one of the best weapons against poverty and conflict. A generation deprived of it could fall into the same patterns in the future.

A woman in Yemen, wearing a scarf which covers her face, is holding up a book to a group of children.
Children growing up without education may even lack basic literacy skills, depriving them of safe, fulfilling jobs in the future. They may never be able to read essential information like healthcare and safety pamphlets and posters. Photo: Karam Kamal
  • Children lose homes and communities: Millions of children and families worldwide flee their homes because of armed combat. Some do this because they’re under direct attack. Others have lost livelihoods. Many are on a desperate search for food.
           Growing up in refugee camps, or settlements for people displaced within their own countries, is a new kind of battle for survival. Most camps are not safe or peaceful places. Population is dense and security, lax.

           Water and sanitation facilities are often very far from children’s tents or shelters. This leaves children open to attack, especially when making the journey after dark.

            Like women, girls face unique risks of attack and abuse – both outside of their shelters and inside. In many situations, multiple families live together in a small, crowded space, allowing no privacy or protection for girls.  
  • Children’s economies are destroyed: People fighting in, fleeing from, or living through armed conflict often can’t sustain livelihoods or contribute to their economies.
            Agriculture, industries, jobs and infrastructure are often casualties of the fighting. As a result, children’s parents and caregivers:
  • Can’t plant, nurture and harvest crops, nor can they raise herds of livestock.
  • Can’t start businesses and hire workers, helping lift other families out of poverty.
  • Can’t trade with other communities, growing local networks and helping strengthen their country’s economy.
  • May send their children out to work or beg, creating dirty, dangerous and degrading situations for girls and boys.
  • Children plunge further into poverty – often for a lifetime.
            Armed combat often happens the world’s poorest regions – those already ravaged by the effects of climate change, battling food insecurity and destruction of livelihoods.

            Governments become preoccupied with putting down insurgencies or responding to crises. They lack the funds or commitment to build or maintain infrastructure, healthcare and education.

            Years of chaos can drag nations deeper into poverty. Even when families live nowhere near the actual violence, the ripple effects of armed conflict can last a lifetime.
  • Children face generational psychosocial impact
            Experiences from armed conflict – both in the short and long-term – can impact families for generations.
            Children growing up with psychological distress from armed conflict may struggle with their mental, emotional and behavioral health as adults. This can create a destabilizing environment for their own children.

In Cambodia, children sit on the floor.
In Cambodia, children are just two or three generations away from the Khmer Rouge regime. Many parents were raised by survivors of the country’s notorious work camps. This inter-generational psychological distress has affected today’s kids, as many
families resort to violence for discipline. Photo: Bridie McKeena

4. Why are girls so acutely impacted by armed conflict?

 In the midst of chaos, women and girls can be rendered completely vulnerable – even in societies making progress with gender equality. Each year, thousands are cruelly targeted by armed groups. NOTE: This may be disturbing to some readers.
Sexual violence from “the enemy”
In 2008, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the use of sexual violence as a tool of war. Yet as recently as 2019, the UN estimated that in conflict zones, for every rape reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are not.
Forced marriage and forced impregnation are other tools of war. Sexual torture can result in forced abortion. There’s also indentured labour, sexual slavery and the intentional spread of STIs, including HIV/AIDS.

A group of women and older girls wearing headscarves sit in a circle, doing needlework together.
Persecution of Rohingya families in Myanmar has involved mass rapes of women and girls. Now in a Bangladesh refugee camp, girls and women visit this safe space provided by World Vision. Here, they can share openly and learn new skills together. Photo: World Vision Bangladesh.
These gender-based forms of violence are weapons of warfare, characteristic of many armed conflicts today. It’s about cruelty and humiliation – but more than that.
Girls and women are viewed as the ones carrying and reproducing the culture of the enemy. Impregnate a girl with the enemy’s child – or destroy her womb altogether – and you’re eliminating any future identity this community might have.
Forced marriage to help families survive
Marriage before the age 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Yet in the most desperate situations, a family may sell a female child into marriage. The proceeds can feed a family for months or even longer.

A young woman crouches over a large metal bowl, washing dishes. She’s in a hut with a dirt floor.
In South Sudan, Bakita is the third wife of a 65-year-old man. She dropped out of high school to marry, for a dowry that helped her family survive. In a country riddled by armed conflict and withered by drought, nearly half of all girls marry before age 18. Jemima Tumalu
Armed conflict and its broader effects force families to make unthinkable decisions. These include marrying off daughters while still children.
Girls forced into marriage often confront lifetimes of poverty, danger and abuse, including the psychosocial devastation of being suddenly removed from their families. Many child brides face forced sexual intercourse, early pregnancy and too often, a lifetime of poverty.

A teen girl in a sundress sits beside a concrete wall, looking down and away from the camera.
Photo: Aggrey Nyondwa

5. Are the impacts on children in armed conflict getting worse?

“Conflicts around the world are lasting longer, causing more bloodshed and claiming more young lives.” -- Henrietta Fore, former executive director of UNICEF

Since 1800, with a few notable exceptions, most in-country armed conflicts have lasted just a few years. That has changed recently. Here are some examples:   Even within Ukraine, conflict flared up nearly eight years ago, with more than 50,000 casualties between then and now.

In Romania, a little child warmly dressed stand amidst a crowd of adults wearing black.
Photo: Armenuhi Burmanyan

Number of affected children increasing

Children have done nothing to precipitate or perpetuate armed conflict in their countries. Yet each year, more of the world’s girls and boys are subjected to its horrors.

The number of children living in conflict zones has been increasing since the year 2000, notes the Peace Research Institute Oslo. In some cases, the well-being of an entire generation has been compromised. Here are some details:   Armed conflict, climate change and children

As global temperatures climb, the risk of armed conflict is expected to increase substantially, according to experts across several fields.

Many of the world’s children are growing up with the cruel effects of both armed conflict and climate change. This can greatly compound their suffering, in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

Two children perch on a rock above floodwaters in their community.
Children impacted by both civil conflict and climate change may never have known lives free from fear and need. Photo: Jemima Tumalu


6. How is World Vision helping children impacted by armed conflict?

 Children affected by armed conflict have the same rights as every child. They deserve to live in safety and security, free from fear and destitution. They are filled with potential and have the right to peaceful, bountiful lives and futures.
Here are some of the ways World Vision works to help:
Emergency assistance: World Vision meets children and families where they’re at, providing life essentials such as safe water, nutritious food, medical care, emergency shelter, psychosocial care for children as well as child protection.

A woman in a bright orange vest kneels beside a young girl in a coat, with a small suitcase.
World Vision staff in Romania were waiting to care for the thousands of Ukraine children and families fleeing the crisis in that country. Photo: World Vision Romania staff

World Vision teams living in nearly 100 countries are often the first to be meeting needs, saving lives, protecting futures. They work tirelessly to support refugees and internally displaced persons in camps and settlements.
In the halls of power – whether global, like the United Nations, national, like Canada’s government or local, in children’s own countries – World Vision advocates for policy changes and initiatives to protect children at the mercy of armed conflict.
Raw Hope: The Raw Hope initiative is World Vision’s longer-term response for children in the world’s toughest places. Raw Hope works in countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria.

World Vision supports child survivors facing multiple threats at once – armed conflict being a major one. There’s also chronic political and economic instability, and debilitating poverty.

Our teams support these children as they grow, by providing essentials such as food, clean water, healthcare, shelter, education and protection. Peacebuilding programs can help the next generation learn different ways of living. Learn more about ‘fragile contexts’

7. How can I help children impacted by armed conflict?
At the onset of a crisis, we invite you to support our Disaster Relief work. It’s the most immediate way of reaching children facing sudden outbreaks of armed conflict, as with Ukraine, for example. Click here to donate to Ukraine relief
For ongoing crises, many of which involve armed conflict, we recommend Raw Hope. It’s the best way to support children in the world’s most fragile regions over the longer-term, through monthly donations. Click here to donate to Raw Hope