Armed conflict impacts religious and spiritual growth of children and youth and often serves as a trigger of potential change in the developmental trajectory of a child's religiosity and spirituality. Children victimized by armed conflict might question the existence of God or, alternatively, find God to be the only source of resiliency. Consequently, a child's religiosity and spirituality might have an impact on how a child responds to armed conflict. Some children might feel abandoned by God and adopt the role of helpless victims, while others might feel protected by God and find strength to survive even the worst acts of violence. In the armed conflicts of recent years, children of all ages have increasingly been victimized as both targets and perpetrators of violence. Two million children are thought to have died in wars between 1990 and 2001, another six million have been wounded or disabled, and one million have been orphaned. The picture of the impact of the most recent war in Iraq on children has yet to emerge, but it will undoubtedly increase the number of casualties. Approximately 20 million children have been forced from their homes because of armed conflict and civil strife. Some seven million of those children have sought refuge in another country. Children constitute nearly half of the world's 38 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); the number of refugee children is increasing by 5,000 per day. An estimated 300,000 youngsters have been coerced into becoming fighters in civil wars across the globe and millions of adolescents are sold and trafficked into sexual slavery. Children in at least 68 countries live amidst the threat of 110 million landmines, and each year between 8,000 and 10,000 children are injured or killed by them.
Beyond these statistics are the haunting images of adolescent victims of rape, which has become as much a weapon of warfare as bullets and machetes; of child soldiers who are barely the height of the automatic weapons they carry; of children separated from their families in conditions of extreme deprivation; of youngsters forced to work under dangerous and harmful conditions; of school-aged children deprived of opportunities to learn; of children of all ages unable to find appropriate health care; and of children suffering various forms of trauma. Armed conflicts also increasingly serve as vectors for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) pandemic, which follows closely on the heels of armed troops and in the corridors of conflict. The statistics and images tell the same story: children and adolescents are the most vulnerable populations in armed conflict.
Although children of different ages, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds experience the effects of armed conflict differently, war-affected adolescents are frequently worse off than other children. Adolescents are at a critical stage of development, transitioning out of childhood and on the threshold of adulthood. While they may not suffer the same rates of mortality and morbidity as very young children, they are at an increased risk to being recruited into military service, to being particularly vulnerable to economic exploitation, and to having fewer opportunities to attend school. In addition, adolescent girls are more likely to be sexually abused or held as sexual slaves, adolescent boys and girls are at a higher risk for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and adolescents may have to head households and assume adult responsibilities without sufficient support. Indeed, the importance of family to the well-being of children and adolescents in armed conflict cannot be overlooked. Studies dating back as far as World War II have documented lower rates of distress among children and adolescents who remained with their families in situations of armed conflict compared with other youngsters who lost parents in the conflict or were evacuated to children's centers located in more peaceful areas.
There is a growing literature on the impact of armed conflict on children, but the 1996 groundbreaking study prepared for the United Nations (UN) by Madame Graca Machel provides possibly the most complete picture of their situation. The central importance of this study is its attempt to reduce children's vulnerability to the conditions of violent conflict through the implementation of policies that would bind UN member states and parties involved in armed conflict to implement practices aimed at the protection of children and adolescents. Another significant contribution is its call for culturally appropriate forms of intervention and rehabilitation for child survivors. Indeed, considerations of culture-including religious and spiritual beliefs, rituals, and practices-must be at the heart of effective healing interventions.
There is evidence that religion and spirituality play a significant role in understanding and responding to the suffering of individuals and communities affected by armed conflict. In most major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the experience of human misery, from sickness, natural disasters, armed conflict, violent death, atrocity, and genocide, is taken to be a vital condition of people's existential plight. Religious and spiritual beliefs provide meaning to the otherwise meaningless experience of human suffering.