It is clear that there are categories of children who are especially vulnerable in situations of armed conflict, such as girls, refugee and internally displaced children, and child-headed households. These children require special advocacy, attention and protection. The girl child is often the victim of sexual violence and exploitation, and, increasingly, girl children are being recruited into fighting forces.
In intervention initiatives for war-affected children, such as community-based reintegration programmes for children associated with fighting forces, it is girls that are most often being bypassed, even though they are in greatest need of care and services. We miss girls in our interventions because many of them are unwilling to come forward in the first place, to be identified as "bush wives" or to have their children labeled as "rebel babies." Communities often stigmatize and ostracize girls because of their association with rebel groups and the "taint" of having been raped. Often, rebel groups categorically refuse to give up the girls at all even after commitments have been made to release children. In many conflict situations combatants have been reluctant to release girls to transit care facilities, holding them captive as "wives."
In these cases, even where associations between perpetrators and their victims began with abduction, rape and violence, over several years "family units" have developed which include babies born of rape. In terms of programme response, all of these factors represent critical challenges for the international community, and more often than not, resources available fall short of the scope and complexity of the challenges.
Special attention must be given to the specific needs of girls. A deeper understanding is required of the acute vulnerability of girls in situations of armed conflict, which should inform more gender-sensitive strategies and protection and programme responses. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes should include special attention to girl victims of sexual exploitation and girl heads of households.
Sexual and gender-based violence and the vulnerability of girls in the context of armed conflicts has been a particular preoccupation and focus of the office's advocacy, especially during the field missions. Even though girls are gradually receiving more attention, including in the context of post-conflict rehabilitation and reintegration programming, the child protection community, academia and other stakeholders must strive to deepen the knowledge base on girls to inform more effective advocacy and programme interventions.