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World: Women, Children Are the Victims Of Most Modern-Day Wars

  • Eugen Tomiuc

A report released yesterday points to the disturbing fact that some 90 percent of the victims in today's wars are civilians, the majority of them women and children. The "State of the World's Mothers" report analyzes the condition of mothers and children in 105 countries -- many of which are or have recently been affected by war. The report -- which found Switzerland to be the best country in the world for women, with Niger at the bottom -- calls for better protection of women and children in war-torn areas.

Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. relief organization Save the Children reveals in its third-annual "State of the World's Mothers" report that civilians -- especially women and children -- are increasingly the casualties of deliberate and systematic violence in modern-day conflicts throughout the world.

The report, released yesterday, compares the well-being of mothers and children in 105 countries, out of which 31 are either currently experiencing or just emerging from conflicts.

The document reveals that the number of civilian casualties of wars has increased almost twentyfold over the past century, to as much as 90 percent in recent years.

Beryl Levinger, a senior adviser for education and development at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), was a research director for the "State of the World's Mothers" report. Levinger told RFE/RL: "By the year 2002, approximately 90 percent of all casualties [in conflicts] are women and children. This has to do with the way war and conflicts are resolved, whether it's terrorism or systematic genocide. A little bit less than 100 years ago, during World War I, the percentage of casualties who were women and children was about one in 20 -- 5 percent. In World War II, because of the bombing, the proportion rose to 65 percent. But now we're looking not at [world] wars but at isolated [conflicts] across the world, and we're seeing nine out of 10 casualties are women and children. That's a very traumatic change!"

The report points out that in modern warfare, women and children are increasingly exposed to physical hardships and are often left defenseless against hunger, injury, disease, and forced military servitude, as well as sexual abuse and exploitation.

It goes on to say that women and children account for 28 million -- or 80 percent -- of the world's 35 million refugees. Moreover, some 2 million children have been killed in armed conflicts during the past 10 years, and more than 12 million were orphaned.

The "State of the World's Mothers" report also notes a dramatic increase in the use of rape as a weapon. For example, the report cites UN and local estimates that show some 20,000 girls and women between the ages of seven and 65 were raped during the Bosnian war in 1992 -- the first year of the conflict.

Levinger says that, altogether, the number of rape victims during the three-year Bosnian conflict could be as high as 50,000, and that the crime carries long-term consequences.

"Just to give you an example, in Bosnia, 50,000 women were raped during that conflict. Obviously, that's a hugely traumatic experience for them, perhaps [also] for the children that they will mother as a result of that rape. It is an intergenerational problem. We're only seeing the beginning of that problem, and we would imagine that over the course of the next 25 years, the full ramifications of that horrific phenomenon will be understood."

The report highlights the inextricable link between the survival of children and the well-being of their mothers, especially in times of war, when women are often the only persons left to hold their families -- and even entire communities -- together.

The document also includes a "Mother's Index" that uses six indicators to compare the status of women in the surveyed countries. The six indicators are:

-- Risk of maternal mortality

-- Use of modern contraception

-- Percentage of births attended by qualified personnel

-- The prevalence of anemia among pregnant women

-- Adult female literacy

-- And participation of women in government.

According to the index, the world's worst place for women is the north-central African nation of Niger. Conflict-ridden states such as Guinea-Bissau, Yemen, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Nepal also rank among the world's worst places for women to live.

The five best countries for women are Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. The U.S. and Austria tie for 10th place.

Among former Soviet states, Russia and Moldova tie for 20th place, while Ukraine is ranked 25th, just after Kazakhstan.

Data available for the Balkans places Bulgaria 16th in the world, well ahead of Romania, which comes in a distant 34th. No data is presented for either Yugoslavia or Albania.

The report also includes a separate children's index of 156 countries, based on four indicators covering the well-being of children -- infant mortality, nutritional status, primary school enrollment, and access to safe water.

On the children's index, Afghanistan is at the bottom of the list, preceded by war-ridden African countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and Sierra Leone.

In Afghanistan, the report says, one out of every six children dies before reaching one year of age, while one-quarter of the children suffers from malnutrition.

Almost 90 percent of Afghan children do not have access to safe drinking water and more than 70 percent are not enrolled in school. Moreover, an Afghan woman is 1,200 times more likely to die giving birth than a woman in top-ranked Switzerland.

By and large, the report says, some 540 million children in the world -- that is, one in four -- live in dangerous, unstable conditions.

It goes on to illustrate traumas suffered during wartime by children in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, of whom some 55 percent had been shot at, almost 70 percent had been in a situation where they said they had expected to die, and almost 30 percent experienced what the report called "unbearable sorrow."

The report says that while the nature of war has changed, the global humanitarian response has not adapted. In countries such as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, or Sudan, it says, food donated by international aid agencies and intended for women and children frequently ended up in the hands of combatants.

But Levinger says humanitarian aid is not enough, and that the international response to the new challenges has to be more far-reaching.

"Women and children need to have four things. They need to have access to education, access to health care, access to economic opportunities, and full participation in their societies."

In its report, Save the Children urges the U.S. government and international policy-makers to put the care and protection of women and children first in "each and every response to war and conflict."

The report says nongovernmental organizations such as Save the Children itself are the most experienced and best prepared to ensure the health and safety of women and children. But it says its efforts are being severely constrained by a lack of resources.

The report welcomes the U.S. administration's recent (March) proposal of a Millennium Challenge Account that will fund initiatives to help developing nations improve their economies and standards of living, and to which the U.S. is scheduled to contribute some $5 billion over the next three years.

Levinger stresses that such far-reaching, global aid programs must put more emphasis on the needs of mothers and children in order to change mentalities.

"The traditional approach of reconstruction has to be accompanied by emphasis on mothers and children. And we also realize that by emphasizing mothers and children, we're building a new generation of peacemakers, because mothers have been shown to be particularly effective at reconciliation."

The "State of the World's Mothers" report concludes that the U.S. must ensure that assistance aimed at conflict response and prevention "rises in tandem with new development funds, and that efforts focus on improving conditions for women and children."

(For the full text of the report, see