Elevate Difference

Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond

In Forgetting Children Born of War, R. Charli Carpenter explores a perplexing question: Why has the human rights community ignored a critically vulnerable population, the children born to women who were raped during war? These children are subject to infanticide, neglect, abuse, and abandonment—both within their own families and within the societies into which they are born. Since the human rights community has a mandate to protect the most vulnerable citizens of society—which usually includes children, mothers, and pregnant women—why are they violating their own principles?

Through an exhaustive study of media, NGO reports, and interviews, Carpenter comes to understand that children born of war have been forgotten and neglected because human rights advocates focus instead on the problem of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as well as the women who have been subjected to sexual violence. Focusing on the children born of rape is understood as a conflict of interest. War rape is talked about and viewed “through lenses of nationalism, feminism, and humanitarianism rather than through a children’s rights frame.” Rape is a crime and the woman who experiences war rape is a victim; forced pregnancy and rape are weapons of ethnic cleansing. This is how the issue is dealt with in the context of the human rights agenda. Thus, the child conceived through rape is understood as a product of violence, as a “tool of genocide,” rather than as a human being in need of special protection.

Human rights advocates who initially considered the issue eventually decided to allow the local community to deal with these children, rather than offer the benefits, resources, and organizational manpower of the global human rights network. Local communities have responded in a variety of ways but none of the efforts made on behalf of these children are sufficient.

Carpenter’s book sheds light not just on the problem of children who have been conceived through rape during a time of war—tens of thousands of children across the globe—but also the equally complex problem of how human rights issues get constructed and adopted within the community, ultimately leading to how needs are addressed or ignored. Her book is a critical call for the need to re-examine our understanding of human rights and how those needs are addressed through the human rights network.

Written by: Jessica Powers, August 1st 2010