Refugee children face a different, increased risk of sexual and gender-based victimization, given their dependence on adults, their limited ability to protect themselves and make decisions, their limited power. Linked to their developmental level, they cannot fully understand the sexual connotations of certain behaviours, nor can they express informed consent. Gender, ethnicity, cultural, social and economic factors may constitute additional risk factors that may expose them to sexual and gender-based violence.
Sexual and gender-based violence against children has devastating effects on their development as well as on their physical and mental health.
Relevant to the protection of refugee children under the Rights of the Child are the following guiding principles:
- Right to life, survival and development;
- Best interests of the child;
- Participation (the right to have a say in decisions affecting the child from a certain age);
Categories of refugee children who may easily become victims of sexual and gender-based violence:
1. Separated and/or unaccompanied children (these children are not “orphans” unless there is clear evidence of parental responsibility).
They are at risk of sexual exploitation, abuse, military recruitment, abduction, trafficking and detention as long as they are not accompanied by a protective adult. Although they may be accompanied by an adult/relative, they may face the same risks. If parents are deceased, these children are often the sole breadwinners in the family.
2. Children in detention
Sexual abuse has been frequently reported among children held in detention or deprived of their liberty, often because they are believed to be HIV- or AIDS-free, or based on cultural beliefs about the value of virginity.
3. Children conscripted into the military
The recruitment of refugee children takes different forms: while boys are used in armed confrontations (whether they enlist to support their families or are forcibly recruited or abducted), girls are used for sexual slavery or forced labour (through the same mechanisms).
The assumption of adult roles and responsibilities by an adolescent is culturally conditioned in some cases and often a consequence of the refugee situation. Adolescent girls are particularly exposed to sexual and gender-based violence. Considered too young to suffer from sexually transmitted diseases, they are targets for perpetrators.
5. Children with physical or mental disabilities
“Hidden” by their families because of their disabilities, these children are, in practice, “invisible”. Excluded, marginalized and often unable to avoid perpetrators, they are another category of children at high risk of becoming victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
6. Working children
These are separated children who remain breadwinners for the rest of the family, children who work to support the family, are victims of exploitation and abuse of all kinds.
Unable to meet their own needs and those of their children because of poverty, they are exposed to sexual exploitation. If they have become mothers as a result of rape, they also become victims of isolation, stigma and discrimination and therefore their access to services and facilities is limited.
8. Male victims/survivors of sexual and gender-based violence
This type of abuse is under-recognized, under-reported and under-investigated. Given some cultural restrictions, stereotypes and myths about homosexuality or strong feelings of shame, boys are much less likely to report abuse than girls.
9. Child abusers
Like adults, refugee children can use their power in relation to other children. Forcing another child, more sexual relations is a form of sexual abuse. Often a victim of sexual abuse themselves, the child abuser must also be assisted. It is also necessary to protect juvenile offenders while they are serving sentences in prison, as they may be abused in detention. Their psycho-social support must be continued during their post-detention period in order to rehabilitate them.
Children who are victims/survivors of sexual and gender-based violence must have immediate access to medical care and psychological support, and where appropriate, legal assistance. All actions must be in the best interests of the child.