The effects of war on children

Gone are the days when most wars were fought between countries’ armies on a remote battlefield. The vast majority of modern conflicts take place within countries, not between them. And whereas civilians were once far removed from the fighting, they’re now routinely targeted and make up 90% of the casualties.

In many conflict zones children account for the majority of the casualties. Most die not from the weapons themselves, but from preventable diseases that aren’t prevented or treated because the health systems and infrastructure have been destroyed.

More than 2.7 million children died in D.R. Congo as a result of the conflict there.

“The physical, sexual and emotional violence to which they [children] are exposed shatters their world. War undermines the very foundations of children's lives, destroying their homes, splintering their communities and breaking down their trust in adults.”
– Graca Machel in her 1996 report The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

Physical effects of war on children.

What grabs the headlines is children being killed and maimed by the bombs and bullets of war. But some are recruited to become soldiers themselves and are placed directly in the firing line. When the heat of battle is over, landmines and unexploded ordinance can leave a deadly legacy for years.

Rape and sexual violence are increasingly being used as a weapon of war. Many girls and young women have babies as a result, or are injured in such a way that they cannot have children in the future.

Many more children die or become gravely ill from the indirect physical effects of war. Hospitals and health centres are destroyed. Doctors and nurses are killed or have fled. Children are most vulnerable to diseases like diarrhoea, malaria and cholera. Treatment is simple and cheap, but millions of children have died through lack of it.

Economic effects of war on children.

One of the gravest effects of war is the way it disrupts and destroys children’s education. Yet education really is the best weapon against poverty and conflict – see our ‘This textbook could save your life’ feature article to see why.

War destroys industries, jobs and infrastructure. It can put a huge strain on families – and conflict is usually taking place in the poorest countries in the first place. Parents often can’t afford to look after their children and may be forced to keep them at home to look after siblings, to work instead of going to school, or the children may even end up on the streets in the most acute cases of poverty.

It's at this economic level where the damage is really done as it fuels the conflict-poverty-conflict-poverty cycle that has caused countless deaths and blighted lives across huge swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Psychological effects of war on children.

The psychological and emotional trauma caused by war have been widely studied in recent years. Whereas soldiers in the First World War received little sympathy for suffering from ‘shell shock’, more is now understood about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It adversely affects adults who are sent to fight in conflicts, and the effects on vulnerable and impressionable children can be worse. Particularly as many don’t really understand what the conflict is about or why it is happening. It can affect their ability to forge healthy relationships with adults or with their peers. Some turn to alcohol or drug misuse as a coping mechanism – this behaviour is particularly common among street children and child soldiers.


Yet it’s also worth pointing out that children are often incredibly resilient. Given the right environment and protection they can remarkably thrive and recover from a really tough start in life. You only have to read Juliet's inspirational story to see evidence of that.

This is an important point and it forms the basis of our work. We don’t treat children as helpless victims; instead we look to build on their own resilience. Our programmes give young people the tools and opportunities to rebuild their own lives, and create the protective environment for them to do so.

Content courtesy of @lettythomas.

What is War Child doing?

Life Skills

Education is a great tool for building on children’s resilience. We’re big exponents of both formal education (i.e. getting kids into school) and informal education (vocational training, children’s clubs, literacy lessons in our Drop-in Centres etc). For the most vulnerable children we’ll provide one-to-one counselling until they’re ready to join in classroom or group activities.

Teaching children life skills is really important as many won’t have a strong family or social network to support them. As well as literacy and numeracy, our projects also teach problem solving, communication skills, interpersonal relationship skills, empathy and dealing with stress and emotions.


Advocacy is all about helping children get their voices heard and their rights met. We think it’s really important to empower young people to speak out themselves, rather than for us to act on their behalf.

We’re helping children to create their own radio broadcasts about child rights in Uganda, our rap battles and hip hop music videos have enabled street children’s voices to be heard by decision-makers right across D.R. Congo, we helped girls create an animation about gender violence that is changing attitudes in Karamoja, and our TV adverts and posters designed by children have been seen by millions of people in Iraq.

“I have worked collecting coca cans for more than 6 years with my mother, I feel humiliated when I was working and I felt everyone looked down on me. However, now I feel that I can change my life by myself, so I am going to do just that.”

Hakim, user of our Drop-in Centre in Iraq.