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Peter* is a  gentle, smiling 14-year-old who loves school, especially maths, drama and drawing. But just a year go, he was living as a child soldier with an armed group in South Sudan. “They gave us weapons for shooting,” he says. “They were teaching us skills – how to hide ourselves or run.” Photo by: Louis Leeson / Save The Children

Gender-Based Violence Creates An Unequal World for Children

Every girl and boy deserves to grow up free from harm. Yet gender-based violence continues, effectively ending their childhoods and risking their futures. Gender-based violence occurs in every country in the world and across all economic and social groups. Sadly, one in three women and girls will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetimes.

While both girls and boys are negatively impacted, girls are particularly vulnerable. These types of violent acts against children are specifically committed against their will and are based on gender norms and an imbalance of power in their relationships.[i]

Gender-based violence has been ingrained into society, in some countries and regions more than others. In many communities, violence against girls and women is expected and even accepted. The military use of schools continues in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, the Philippines and Afghanistan. In some contexts, schoolgirls have been specifically targeted for sexual violence and by armed groups who oppose female education.[iv]

What is gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence against children is a crime against girls and boys that “undermine the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims.”[iii] These acts are perpetuated physically, sexually, psychologically and/or economically, and seek to deny access to resources or services that may help lift a victim out of the cycle of violence.

Violence against girls includes sexual violence, child marriage, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, intimate partner violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse. The impacts are significant in both the short- and long-term, and can include serious physical injuries, sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDs, forced and unwanted pregnancies, and greater risk of maternal mortality[iv].

Boys are also victims of trafficking and gender-based sexual violence and exploitation, but due to stigmatization, the numbers continue to be vastly underreported. Adolescent boys over the age of 10 are also particularly vulnerable to being detained because they are regarded as security threats for their – or their family’s – alleged association with armed groups. Children are tortured or abused, kept with adult prisoners, not provided proper legal support, or live in conditions that are against international standards for juvenile justice.

The threat of gender-based violence is pervasive and contributes to the end of childhood for millions of children around the world, as shown by staggering global trends:[iv]

  • 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year
  • 30 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation in the next decade
  • 1 in 3 girls and women live in countries where marital rape is not an explicit crime

The Harmful Cycle of Gender-Based Violence

Adding to the physical trauma of gender-based violence is the profound psychological impact. The effect is often worsened by family and community rejection. Girls and boys are frequently stigmatized in their communities when they are suspected of experiencing sexual violence.

Due to their gender, girls are often forced to drop out of school, are prevented from accessing income-generating opportunities, and ultimately face social exclusion. The impact is even starker when girls become pregnant and become trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty and increased vulnerability to exploitation.

Gender-Based Violence Increases in Conflict Settings

Gender-based violence is heightened during conflict for both girls and boys. Adolescent boys are often targeted due to their perceived threat and potential fighting capabilities, while young girls are targeted for sexual violence. Girls are particularly vulnerable during conflict, especially when deviating from community norms that have been idealized by armed groups, such as entering public spaces, working or not adhering to dress codes. The fear of gender-based violence limits girls’ access to opportunities like education, health care and legal status.

6 Countries in Conflict Pose the Biggest Risk of Sexual Violence for Children

A staggering 72 million children—17% of the 426 million children living in conflict areas, globally, or one in six—are living near armed groups that perpetrate sexual violence against them.[v] 

The countries where children face the greatest risk of sexual violence in conflict include ColombiaIraqSomaliaSouth SudanSyriaYemen.

Gender-Based Violence and Child Marriage

Every seven seconds one girl under age 15 is married. Child marriage isn’t a single rights violation – it triggers and exacerbates a cycle of gender discrimination, threatening girls’ education, health and safety around the world.

Girls as young as 10 often marry much older men in countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, India and Somalia.[iv] Child marriage is commonly perceived as a protective and preventative measure against gender-based violence, especially in areas engaged in conflict.

Save the Children is committed to advancing gender equality and reducing gender-based violence

Girls and boys have the basic right to gender equality and a life free from violence. Save the Children is dedicated to addressing harmful gender norms and ensuring that each child is protected and has the opportunity to grow up healthy, educated and safe. From early childhood, Save the Children reaches hundreds of millions of children each year through programs promoting gender equality and empowerment to create the gender-equal future all girls and boys deserve.

Over the past two decades, Save the Children has helped achieve a 25% global decline in child marriage and empowered 11 million girls to stay in school or pursue independence through work, allowing them to decide for themselves when they are ready for marriage and motherhood.

*Name changed for privacy

[i] UNHCR: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
[ii] UNFPA: Gender-Based Violence
[iii] UNFPA – Cost of ending Gender-Based Violence
[iv] Stop the War on Children
[v] Weapon of War: Sexual Violence Against Children in Conflict