West and Central Africa is the region with the highest number of child soldiers in the world, as well as the most underage victims of sexual violence, according to a new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Since 2016, the region has been hit by growing conflict in which more than 21,000 children have been recruited by government forces and armed groups, the report said on Tuesday.
In addition, more than 2,200 children have been verified as victims of sexual violence during the past five years, it added. Meanwhile, some 3,500 children have been abducted, making it the region with the second-highest abductions in the world, while there have been at least 1,500 attacks on schools and hospitals.
Overall, the UN’s children agency said more than 57 million children in the region are in need of humanitarian assistance, a number that has doubled since last year as a result of conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Whether children in West and Central Africa are the direct targets or collateral victims, they are caught up in conflict and face violence and insecurity,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa.
“The grave violations of their rights perpetrated by parties to the conflicts are unacceptable. They have an adverse impact on their capacity to learn, work, build meaningful relationships and contribute to the development of their communities and countries,” Poirier added.
Since 2005, when the UN established a system to monitor and report on serious violations against children, such as recruitment, abduction, rape and attacks on schools and hospitals, one out of four violations globally was committed in West and Central Africa, said the report.
In conflict-affected countries such as Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, violence has had devastating humanitarian consequences for children and communities, and the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, said the UN.
The Sahel – a semi-arid region that stretches from northern Senegal through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and into Sudan and Eritrea – has in recent years seen a spike in violence.
Several countries in the Sahel have been embroiled in conflicts involving several armed groups, military campaigns by national armies and international partners, as well as local militias.
The security crisis started in 2012 when an alliance of separatist and armed groups took over northern Mali, prompting military intervention by former colonial power France to stop the separatist advance towards the capital, Bamako, and prevent a total collapse of the Malian state. The conflict then spilled over into neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Children associated with armed groups are often exposed to “unbearable levels of violence” and their recruitment can be preceded and followed by other violations such as abduction, sexual violence and the killing and maiming of children, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba told The Associated Press.
The UN called for parties to the conflict to prevent and end violations against children and for perpetrators to be held accountable. It also urged aid groups to increase the documentation of violations and to work to prevent and respond to them.
UNICEF said it needed more than $92m to protect children in emergencies across West and Central Africa, more than half of which is not yet funded.