Children Born of War

Iraq is not alone….

Conflict has a devastating effect on civilians, including increasing the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual violence. Iraq, like countries the world over, struggles with the consequences of protracted armed conflict, and fails to adequately respond to the needs of survivors. 

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have long been used as a weapon during war. The UN legislated against this first in October 2000 with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which acknowledged the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls. The UN then recognized sexual violence as a war crime with the passing of UNSCR 1820, which declared “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

Thousands of women and girls were captured by ISIS, subjected to rape and forced marriage, and often bore children as a result, with women and girls from minority communities most affected. At SEED, we are working with survivors to provide them comprehensive mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services as they reintegrate to their communities and try to recover from the traumatic events they suffered.  Women and their children face many challenges upon their return, from both their own community and the legal system in Iraq. 

SEED spoke to three experts about their perspectives and experiences in other countries recovering from war and how they tackled these obstacles to acceptance. 

Children are often born as a result of violent rape and non-consensual relations between women and their captors. These children and their mothers can become victims of social harassment and stigma, and are often ostracized from their communities – depriving them of the acceptance and emotional support needed to aid their recovery. Legal issues around citizenship, parental rights and religious identity further complicate the matter, particularly in conservative patriarchal societies such as Iraq.

Salwa Ghlesa, Executive Director, Association pour le Droit à la Différence (ADD), Tunisia reiterated the importance of laws which promote the acceptance of women and their children back into society. She said that the UNSCR resolutions had been helpful because they criminalized  rape in war, which in turn can help to transfer some of the stigma away from survivors and on to perpetrators.

For women who have children following rape during war, stigma for both the mother and child is a recurring theme across cultures; despite the fact that these women and their children have survived terrible acts of violence, their societies, have stigmatized them for both religious and cultural reasons such as a woman’s honor being associated to her ‘purity’, adding further barriers to their acceptance. Caleb Odhiambo, Senior Program and Protection Manager at SEED Foundation, who worked for NGOs across Africa before joining SEED, notes that it is deeply unfair to burden a child who did not ask to be born or their mother who survived sexual violence with this stigma and rejection, furthe prolonging the effects of the war. As a result of the rejection, affected children often suffer from identity crises and in some cases, are separated from their mothers.

Ghlesa highlighted some success in Tunisia, removing the stigma of being born due to rape has been achieved by having the word ‘bastard’ removed from the law and changing the way that affected children are named so as not to automatically be stigmatized from their name alone.

The many social, financial, religious and legal challenges to registering and raising impacted  children leave mothers deprived of choice, and denied their fundamental human rights. In order to be accepted back into their community it is often conditional that they must leave their child or children born of war behind, often an impossible choice.

Sabiha Husíc, Director, Medica Zenica, Bosnia Herzegovina, emphasized the need to remember that shame and stigma belong to perpetrators, not survivors, and that survivors need to be supported, not shunned, as they return to their communities. She underscored the importance of listening to women and stressed that their rights and choices must be respected, explaining “if they decide to keep their children born of survived sexual violence and war rape, it is very important that the women make this decision. We recognize it is very important that survivors first of all need trust and support from their  families as well as from their communities… They also need psychological, legal, medical support, and economic support.” She said that in Bosnia, NGOs had encouraged the religious community to be more accepting of survivors and their children, reminding people that these children were regular children no different to their own.

Odhiambo was also keen to emphasize accepting children saying “if we look at a child just as a child, then we start looking at them in the lens of possibilities, what possibilities does this child have?”

The consequences of war, conflict, and sexual violence impact survivors and their societies for decades to come; it is critical that as a society we come together and support survivors to heal.

Find out more about how other countries have healed and recovered from war.