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Child victims of war and disaster

Ella Rhodes reports from an event of the British Psychological Society's Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Psychology Section.

10 November 2017

When war erupts and disasters hit communities, children and young people are often deeply vulnerable. They can become displaced, and in the chaos many are subject to horrific abuse – even by some who are sent to help them. The Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society brought together aid workers, a lawyer and NGO-founder, and psychologists at a London conference to better understand how we can help to protect some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

Céline Bardet, who has worked as a war crimes lawyer in Bosnia and for the UN, has set up We Are Not Weapons of War – the first NGO dedicated to tackling sexual crimes and violence during conflicts. While there have been few comprehensive studies on the issue, we know that sexual violence affects girls and boys. Bardet said using rape and sexual violence was a cheap, silent tool that affected whole communities and families with the trauma and stigma it brings. It is only in recent times, however, that rape has been taken into consideration as a war crime and as an element of genocide.

Sexual violence against men and boys during conflicts is an under-explored area, given the stigma that comes with attacks. Director of the All Survivors Project, Charu Hogg, has been researching sexual violence against men and boys in conflict to better understand and define an often unspoken crime. The project, based in the UCLA School of Law, has carried out research projects in Sri Lanka and Bosnia and Herzegovina to help build understanding of the prevalence and typologies of these crimes and responses to them.

Hogg said there were key times when boys were particularly vulnerable to sexual violence during conflict. When men and boys, particularly boys aged between 12 and 15, are detained during conflict they are particularly at risk. Young boys may also be recruited for sexual slavery, for example by ISIS and in Afghanistan. Other vulnerable times are in the midst of ground hostilities and armed attacks. Boys, who are often encouraged to escape alone from war zones, are also vulnerable when fleeing the aftermath of violence and conflict. While stigma and shame affect all genders when reporting sexual violence, Hogg said that its effects on men and boys’ feelings of masculinity adds another level of complexity.

Dr Noreen Tehrani, Chair of the Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Section, has worked alongside Save the Children to find out what it takes to work in war zones and major disaster areas. She screened 240 staff and found extremely high levels of PTSD, burnout and compassion fatigue, but also very high levels of compassion satisfaction, or what people gained from the job.

Those who coped best with the extraordinary demands of humanitarian work felt their jobs were meaningful, important and mattered to them, and they understood that their role was part of a bigger picture of helping people. Those who had appropriate resources and capacity also showed more resilience in these roles. Tehrani said screening was extremely important for staff, and organisations such as Save the Children should consider ways to make its employees aware of trauma and secondary trauma, finding ways to enhance their resilience.

Save the Children’s Director of Child Safeguarding Steve Reeves works to protect those in the charity’s programmes, both in the UK and overseas. He said safeguarding within large organisations spread across the globe was a huge challenge; and given inadequate legislation and weak child protection in many countries, rates of abuse by staff at present are also likely to be underestimated. Save the Children has carried out research in areas where emergencies have happened, speaking to its own staff, those in other NGOs, community groups, parents and children. Some spoke of being threatened by abusers, with one saying an abusive staff member had threatened to remove an NGO’s support if they reported him. One 11-year-old girl in the Middle East, when asked what she would do if something bad happened, said she would tell no one or her parents would have her killed.

Reeves said organisations must realise that these abuses are underreported, and that they need to create better systems for children and families to report crimes by aid agencies in places where traditional ways of reporting aren’t trusted.