Skip to main content

Forgotten: Children Born of War

The recent invasion of Ukraine, but also the ongoing atrocities in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria to name but a few, have demonstrated forcefully that 20th and 21st century wars are no longer only or primarily encounters of armed forces over territorial gains, but conflicts that play out in less clearly regulated circumstances that no longer occur within the confines of international laws of war.2 Those armed conflicts have seen atrocities against civilians, including large-scale attacks of civilian targets, but also the use of other terrorising strategies and tactics including sexualised violence against women and men, used with a level of brutality, callousness and disregard to internationally agreed laws of war in a manner rarely seen in the past. Boundaries between combatants and non-combatants have become increasingly blurred.3

Since the final quarter of the 20th century regular and irregular forces have, more and more systematically, resorted to rape as a weapon of warfare.4 Following the mass rapes of the Balkan Wars, the Rwandan genocide and numerous African and Asian conflicts,5 it has become all too evident that the premises of the international laws of war are no longer adequate to deal with contemporary warfare – both in terms of conceptualising the actual acts of warfare, but also in terms of creating the legal frameworks to hold to account perpetrators of atrocities. The systematic and directed use of rape came to be seen no longer as a by-product of war but as an act of war itself, which led to a reconsideration of conflict-related sexual violence in legal terms. While war rape had already been outlawed by the Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Convention as one of the ‘outrages upon human dignity’,6 the International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) revised our understanding of these war crimes and began formalising the recognition of rape as a war crime in their prosecutions of Crimes against Humanity which included sexual violence. In addition, under the Rome Statues of the International Criminal Court grave acts of sexual violence such as rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy as well as enforced sterilisation have now been identified as war crimes and crimes against humanity.7

In the three decades since the wars in former Yugoslavia the topic of conflict-related sexualised violence (CRSV) against women (and more recently also against men8) has received increased attention in the media, but also in academia and among policy makers. Genuine progress has been made since the landmark United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and the subsequent nine resolutions on WPS-related issues that form an international policy framework aimed at promoting and protecting the rights of women in conflict and post-conflict situations. In stark contrast, the fate of tens of thousands of children fathered by foreign soldiers and born to local mothers, often conceived in CRSV, but also in a range of non-violent relationships, partially consensual and partially exploitative and abusive, have received relatively scarce attention. Similarly, efforts to reintegrate such Children Born of War (CBOW) and to include them in transitional justice processes have been limited.9 Not until UNSCR 2467 in June 2019 did the UN acknowledge CBOW as rights-holders who endure both related and distinct harms from women and girls impregnated in acts of sexual violence. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, referred to this as an ‘invisible crisis’. He explicitly endorsed recommendations of the to date only detailed policy brief on CBOW10 which calls for global, gender-sensitive studies on CBOW as well as on women who become pregnant as a result of CRSV, pointing out that meaningful peace, reconciliation and justice can only be achieved if all groups, including vulnerable women and their children, are included in the process without stigma and discrimination.

CBOW, in currently broadly accepted research and policy terminology, comprise children fathered by enemy soldiers in armed conflicts, children fathered by occupation soldiers in post-conflict occupations, children of (often sexually enslaved female) child soldiers, and children of UN peacekeepers. Provenance of CBOW from such a variety of conflict- and post-conflict scenarios and the categorisation that has arisen out of those varying contexts implicitly point to a broad spectrum of military-civilian relationships into which (or out of which) these children are born. Great variations characterise military-civilian relations during and after armed conflicts with regard to nature, intensity, frequency and longevity of contacts between local populations and foreign soldiers. Children may be conceived of wartime rape, of exploitative or abusive relations, out of forced prostitution or transactional sex under circumstances that severely constrain a woman’s ability to withhold consent, out of survival sex or out of short- or long-term consensual and on occasion love relationships.11

While the circumstances of conception vary significantly, the experiences of CBOW – often independent of the nature of the parental relationship – show remarkable similarities. The children are connected with the conflict and the (former) enemy or occupier in a unique way that makes them vulnerable to a range of adversities. Their provenance as children of (enemy, rebel or occupation) soldier fathers sets them apart from the local communities; they are often raised by mothers who – through association with the enemy and through prejudicial stereotyping – suffer the multiple stigma as victim-survivors of sexual violence and as single mothers. They have to raise their children outside the rigid family norms of frequently patriarchal societies and they are frequently experiencing prolonged and extreme poverty, ill health, educational, economic and social exclusion.

For CBOW this double adversity frequently means that their rights and needs are challenged in ways that few other war-affected groups experience. Yet, very significant human rights issues pertaining to children born of war have been met with a comprehensive silence until recently and specifically with regard to children born of conflict-related sexual violence a recent report speaks of a ‘critical policy and protection gap’. Since the initial work by International Relations scholars in the early 2000s,12 research with different disciplinary and geopolitical foci has amassed a significant evidence base to demonstrate a range of disadvantages, risks and harms that include infanticide, abandonment at birth, childhood adversities including physical and emotional abuse/neglect, dehumanising naming practices within local communities, stigmatisation and discrimination, poverty and food insecurity, reduced access to education, homelessness, to name but a few. In combination such adversities put CBOW at significantly increased risk of poor physical and mental health and, with regard to post-conflict community and state fragility, make them vulnerable to radicalisation and (re-)recruitment into armed groups.13

Psychological, social and economic burdens in CBOW14

CBOW across different geopolitical and historical settings share specific experiences and their upbringing is often characterised by a particular set of individual, social and societal conditions. These have been explored from a psychological perspective in a model that identifies three interrelated factors of particular salience for an understanding of the well-being of CBOW: (1) experiences of discrimination and stigmatisation, (2) child maltreatment, and (3) identity development.15

Issues revolving around identity are amongst the most fundamental challenges CBOW face. CBOWs’ mothers and other relatives have frequently been known to conceal the identity of their children’s fathers because of the societal taboo around extra-marital intimate relations as well as their own feelings of shame and their desire to minimise the stigmatisation and/or discrimination that might be directed at the child and their family. Although most CBOW eventually gain knowledge about their paternal origins directly from their mothers or close relatives during childhood and adolescence, some end up learning the truth either by accident or deliberately from members of their broader social environment, while others only become aware of their origins upon becoming the target of invectives directed at them by their local community.

Many CBOW who only learn of their origins in adulthood report having had a diffuse sense of unease or having struggled with the taboo of their ancestry. Unresolved questions of identity leave many CBOW with an impaired sense of belonging. Almost all CBOW grow up without any knowledge or narratives about their fathers; not only have their fathers been physically absent from their lives, they are also actively excluded from any memorialisation of the past.

Today more or less overt discrimination/stigmatisation is recognised to be a formative experience that CBOW share across almost all post-conflict societies. In fact, most carry multiple burdens, among them: being ‘the offspring of the enemy/foreigner,’ having an interethnic background, and being ‘born out of wedlock.’ Invectives directed at CBOW by their communities such as bui doi (Dust of Life), Amibankert (American bastard), Russenbalg (Russian brat), enfants indésirés (unwanted children), to name but a few, illustrate the kinds of negative societal attitudes they encounter. A substantial proportion of CBOW is subject to open hostility, violence, and social exclusion in their schools, neighbourhoods, and families. CBOWs’ childhood living conditions are often characterised by familial and societal areas of conflicts that centre around their integration and rejection. Concealment, financial hardships, and public and familial rejection often play a role. Considering the negative attitudes families and communities harbour against these children and their mothers, it is unsurprising that CBOW are at an increased risk of child maltreatment.

The individual experiences described above are determined by the particular primary caregivers, families, and communities the CBOW live in. Due to the specific conditions in which these children were born, many were raised by single mothers, frequently in difficult economic circumstances, while others were given up for adoption, raised in children’s homes, or by grandparents or close relatives, repeatedly having to adapt to new primary attachment figures. The stigma and discrimination those CBOW experienced reflect the commonly negative and hostile attitudes their nearer and wider communities had towards them, and, in cases where their mothers entered new romantic alliances, those new family constellations sometimes raised the children’s risk of being discriminated against within their reconfigured families. Moreover, in instances where CBOW are singled out for community or governmental support, or benefit from formal faith-based or NGO aid programs, this can have the negative side-effect of generating animosity and jealousies within their local communities, especially when these support structures are not incorporated into effective transitional justice mechanisms. For example, the blanket amnesty granted to former members of the LRA in Northern Uganda singled out child soldiers for state support upon their post-conflict reintegration into local communities, while many other victims of LRA atrocities did not receive similar support, leading to tensions between returnees and community members who had not been abducted. Similarly, NGO scholarships awarded to formerly abducted enslaved women and their children were not matched by similar support for other war-affected children and thus created further division.16 In order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the impact of the multi-layered adversities encountered by CBOW, it is necessary to develop a comprehensive and coherent model that analyses the interactions of structural discrimination and social marginalisation and exclusion more systematically than has been done hitherto.

From an intergenerational perspective, it is useful to consider how the mother-child relationship dyad affects CBOWs’ development and understanding of the conflation of multiple adversities that are common experiences of CBOW from different historical and geopolitical settings. Research on CBOW has long been focused primarily on children conceived by CRSV. Yet, evidence on CBOW suggests that the circumstances under which these children are conceived do not significantly determine the adversities they encounter in childhood. To illustrate the complex and intergenerational consequences of sexual encounters and conflict-related sexual violence on mothers of CBOW and their children the case of Occupation Children of WWII in Germany is described in more detail.

While it is undisputed that the final stages of WWII saw extreme levels of CRSV, exact figures and official statistics are missing; that said, it is estimated that 1.9 million German women were raped by Soviet soldiers, and thousands of rapes are believed to have been committed by American, British, and French Allied soldiers at the end of WWII and in the post-war period.17 A corollary of the lack of exact data on CRSV in the final phases of the Second World War and the early post-war period is that the exact number of CBOW conceived under those circumstances is also unknown. It is however estimated that up to 400,000 children were born of war as a result of sexual encounters between local women and occupation soldiers. Among these children were those conceived in conflict-related sexual violence and also in intimate relations of more or less consensual nature ranging from the so-called business arrangements to love relationships, and a considerable number of those are assumed to have been born as a consequence of rape.18 Social stigma, shame, and fear led to silence surrounding sexual violence committed by occupation forces, irrespective of their nationality. Female CRSV survivors from this period showed high prevalence rates of different mental disorders – even decades later.19 In 2013, the first empirical study on psychosocial aspects of growing up as a CBOW in Germany after WWII was conducted. As previously mentioned, CBOW’s childhoods were often characterised by burdensome financial, social, and familial living conditions. Only 1.4% (n = 2) of the participants grew up with their biological father, and more than half experienced at least one change of primary attachment figure due to being relocated (e.g. from their mother to their grandmother). A large proportion experienced different kinds of maltreatment during childhood and adolescence: more than half of the participants (57%) reported emotional abuse, 44% emotional neglect, 41% physical abuse, and about one-quarter reported sexual abuse. This exposure is alarming since it is five to ten times higher than in the general population of the same generation.20 Moreover, many experienced stigmatisation and discrimination.21 These difficult childhood developmental conditions faced by CBOW in post-WWII-Germany have been associated with the fact that CBOW are more likely to suffer from mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or somatization even decades later.22 If one considers the psychological consequences of CRSV for the mothers and the often difficult conditions of single mothers of illegitimate children in post-war Germany, it becomes clear what risks existed for a positive mother-child relationship. Even in later adulthood, CBOW report a greater prevalence of insecure attachment patterns in their current relationships. For instance, these CBOW feel less comfortable with closeness and intimacy and are less able to depend on others.23 The findings from the study highlight the long-term impact of developmental conditions on a person’s attachment style, mental health, and wellbeing across their lifespan. From an intergenerational perspective, the loving bond between mother and child can be complicated by the violence committed in rape and, by extension the mother-child relationship can be characterised by difficulties such as lack of closeness and ambivalence. On the other hand, positive mother-child relationships can develop if mothers establish a loving bond with their CBOW, a phenomenon that has been described in other contexts of extreme maternal interpersonal trauma, e.g. in Rwanda or Uganda.24 

As indicated above, current programming aimed at supporting CRSV survivors does not address the specific needs of CBOW; nor do transitional justice processes involve CBOW, whether conceived in violent or non-violent relationships. This not only neglects the needs of a significant number of extremely vulnerable groups in post-conflict societies; it leads to the marginalisation and exclusion of the very people on whom sustainable peace could rest and adds to the fragility of post-conflict societies.


CBOW are a particularly vulnerable war-affected population. Yet, they often remain unnoticed and their needs are widely neglected. Programming needs to include a range of measures:

  1. Ethical training in the military not only needs to be gender-sensitive and address the non-permissibility of CRSV; it also needs to enhance soldiers’ understanding of power dynamics that severely constrains women’s ability to consent freely to intimate relations with soldiers.
  2. Moreover, soldiers need to be trained more effectively in the consequences of fathering children both for the children and their mothers.
  3. Impunity around CRSV and conflict- and peacekeeping-related sexual exploitation and abuse needs to be addressed, and clearer support structures to establish paternity and secure alimony for CBOW need to be developed.
  4. At societal level, CBOW and their mothers who cannot obtain financial assistance from the soldier fathers need to be supported in their home community. Post-conflict justice processes need to include the creation of safe, non-discriminatory spaces for CBOW to be visible, and public education needs to address stigmas and taboos relating to CBOW and their mothers.
  5. Where required access to appropriate psychosocial support services for CBOW and their mothers ought to be available for this particularly vulnerable war-affected group.25

In recent years, CBOW of different generations in different geopolitical contexts, including CBOW of the Second World War and the post-war occupations, now in their seventies and eighties at one end of the spectrum, to CBOW conceived in the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan Genocide or the Ugandan conflicts of the 1990 and 2000s at the other end

of the spectrum, have been engaged in different activities that addressed their stigma and discrimination. These included the publications of autobiographies,26 the co-creation of documentary dance performances,27 and the co-creation of documentary films28 that served the dual purpose of awareness raising about the challenges faced by CBOW and contributed to destigmatising and de-tabooing being born a child born of war. These examples, many of which were based on sustained and successful collaborations between research and the affected groups themselves, demonstrate powerfully the significance of intersectoral co-operation for the benefit of war-affected populations.


1 Children born of war (CBOW) have been described as being forgotten in the transitional justice processes (e.g. Carpenter, R. Charli (2010): Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond. New York. Similarly, some of the self-help organisations, in their chosen names reflect this sentiment. E.g. the Bosnian organisation of CBOW is Zaboravljena Djeca Rata (Forgotten Children of War).

2 Newman, Edward (2004): The “New Wars” debate: A historical perspective is needed. In: Security Dialogue 35 (2), pp. 173-189.

3 Stern, Orly (2018): The Principle of Distinction. In: Stern, Orly (ed): Gender, Conflict, and International Humanitarian Law. Abingdon, pp. 15-40; Tadros, Victor (2018): The Moral Distinction Between Combatants and Noncombatants: Vulnerable and Defenceless. In: Law and Philosophy 37, pp. 289-312.

4 Crawford, Kerry F. (2017): Wartime Sexual Violence: From Silence to Condemnation of a Weapon of War. Washington D.C.

5 Loken, Meredith (2017): Rethinking rape: The role of women in wartime violence. In: Security Studies 26 (1), pp. 60-92; Cohen, Dara Kay (2016): Rape during Civil War. Ithaca.

6 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II). (accessed May 20, 2022).

7 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998). (accessed May 20, 2022); Jeleel, Rana (2013): Weapons of sex, weapons of war: Feminism, ethnic conflict and sexual violence in public international law during the 1990s. In: Cultural Studies 27, pp. 115-135.

8 Zalewski, Marysia et al. (eds) (2018): Sexual Violence against Men in Global Politics. Abingdon.

9 Rohwerder, Brigitte (2019): Reintegration of children born of wartime rape. K4D Helpdesk Report 628. Institute of Development Studies. Brighton.

10 Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (2017): Foreword. In: Neenan, J.:Closing the protection gap for children born of war. (accessed May 20, 2022).

11 Lee, Sabine and Glaesmer, Heide (2022): Children born of war: a critical appraisal of the terminology. In: Lee, Sabine, Glaesmer, Heide and Stelzl-Marx, Barbara (eds.): Children Born of War – Past, Present, Future. Abingdon, pp.12-34, pp.24-26.

12 Carpenter, R. Charli. (ed.) (2007): Born of War: Protecting Children of Sexual Violence Survivors in Conflict Zones. Bloomfield CT; Carpenter, R. Charli (2010): Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond. New York.

13 Lee, Sabine (2017): Children Born of War in the 20th Century. Manchester; Rohwerder, Brigitte (2019).

14 Parts of this section have been explored in more detail in Lee, Sabine and Glaesmer, Heide (2022), on which this exposition is based.

15 Glaesmer, Heide et al. (2012): Die Kinder des Zweiten Weltkrieges in Deutschland. Ein Rahmenmodell für die psychosoziale Forschung. In: Trauma und Gewalt – Forschung und Praxisfelder, 6(4), pp. 318-328.

16 Apio, Eunice Otuko (2016): Children born of war in Northern Uganda: Kinship, marriage and the politics of post-war reintegration in Lango society (unpublished PhD thesis, Birmingham), p. 199.

17 Gebhardt, Miriam (2015): Als die Soldaten kamen. Munich; Grossmann, Atina (1995): A Question of Silence: The rape of German women by occupation soldiers. In: October 72, pp. 42-63; Sander, Helke and Johr, Barbara (eds.) (2008). BeFreier und Befreite: Krieg, Vergewaltigungen, Kinder. 3. Aufl., Frankfurt a. Main.

18 Stelzl-Marx, Barbara and Satjukow, Silke (2015): Besatzungskinder – Nachkommen alliierter Soldaten in Österreich und Deutschland (Occupation Children – Offspring of Allied Soliders in Austria and Germany). Wien, Köln, Weimar, p. 11.

19 Kuwert, Philipp et al. (2010): Trauma and current posttraumatic stress symptoms in elderly German women who experienced wartime rapes in 1945. In: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease198(6), pp. 450-451.

20 Glaesmer, Heide et al. (2017), Childhood maltreatment in children born of occupation after WWII in Germany and its association with mental disorders. In: Int. Psychogeriatr. 29 (7), 1147-1156.

21 Aßmann, Anna-Lena et al. (2015): Stigmatisierungserfahrungen deutscher Besatzungskinder des Zweiten Weltkrieges. In: Trauma und Gewalt – Forschung und Praxisfelder, 9(4), pp. 294-303.

22 Kaiser, Marie et al. (2015): Depression, Somatization, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorders in children born of occupation after WWII in comparison with the general population. In: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 203(10), pp. 742-748.

23 Kaiser, Marie et al. (2018): Long-term effects on adult attachment in German occupation children after WWII in comparison with a birth-cohort matched representative sample of the German general population. In: Aging & Mental Health 22(2), pp. 197-207.

24 Kiconco, Allen (2015): Understanding former ‘Girl Soldiers’ central themes in the lives of formerly abducted girls in post-conflict Northern Uganda (unpublished PhD thesis, Birmingham).

25 Anderson, Kimberley (2022): Addressing the needs of mothers and their children born of conflict-related sexual violence: a framework for support in psychosocial settings. In: Lee, Sabine, Glaesmer, Heide and Stelzl-Marx, Barbara (eds.): Abingdon, pp.136-151.

26 Baur-Timmerbrink, Ute (2015): Wir Besatzungskinder. Söhne und Töchter alliierter Soldaten erzählen. Berlin; Behlau, Winfried. (ed.) (2015): Distelblüten. Russenkinder in Deutschland. Ganderkesee.

27 For instance: In the Name of the Father: docu-dance theatre collaboration between alphagroup, Graz and University of Birmingham;

28 For instance: Akolkar, Dheeraj (director) (2018): Wars don’t end.; Akolkar, Dheeraj (director) (2021): The Wound is where the light enters. (accessed June 7, 2022).


Sabine Lee

Prof. Dr. Sabine Lee graduated from the University of Düsseldorf with a degree in mathematics, history and philosophy. She completed an M.Phil in International Relations and a PhD in Modern History at the University of Cambridge. In 1993, she took up a lectureship in European history at the University of Hull before joining the Department of Modern History at the University of Birmingham 1994.

Heide Glaesmer

Prof. Dr. Heide Glaesmer has graduated from University of Leipzig with a diploma in psychology. She completed her PhD in Public Health at Technical University of Dresden and is a licensed psychotherapist in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy. She is the deputy head of the Department of Medical Psychology and Medical Sociology at University of Leipzig where she leads the Psychotraumatology and Migration research lab.

Download PDF here

All articles in this issue

Dare More Ethics in International Politics! The Global "Women, Peace and Security" Agenda
Manuela Scheuermann
There is still a Choice: Understanding Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
Eunice Otuko Apio
Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and International Criminal Justice: Challenges and Opportunities in the Fight against Impunity
Susann Aboueldahab, Kai Ambos
Forgotten: Children Born of War
Sabine Lee, Heide Glaesmer
"Women and girls are often excluded from the design and the rationale behind humanitarian work"
Isadora Quay
More Women to the Negotiating Table: Meaningful Participation and National Action Plans
Maureen Macoun
Gender Diversity & Inclusion in Armed Forces - Ethical Perspectives on Operational Effectiveness
Andrea Ellner


Nicola Habersetzer, Inger-Luise Heilmann Isabel Borkstett