Child soldiers being used for conflicts by govt forces in West, Central Africa: UN report

History tells us a lot about child soldiers in Africa. But a telling insight from the recently released report by the UNICEF says that these child soldiers are not only being employed by insurgent and terrorist outfits, but also government forces for conflict and other purposes.

The report also provides some startling statistics connected to the recent surge in armed conflicts. Since 2020, close to 57.5 million children have been left in the lurch and need humanitarian assistance thanks to a surge in armed conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The situation in Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and cross-border emergencies, including the crises in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin region, are having devastating humanitarian consequences on children and communities.

As non-state armed groups and conflict spill across borders, they have also fueled intercommunal violence, with civilians and children often the most affected. This has led to children getting trapped behind conflict lines, facing violence and insecurity.

In addition to this, an estimated 21,000 children have been recruited by insurgent groups in West and Central Africa with 2,200 children documented to have been victims of sexual abuse and 3,500 of those getting abducted by these insurgent groups.

What is the situation faced by the children of West and Central Africa?

The UNICEF report indicates that since 2016, there have been more than 1,500 incidents of attacks on schools and hospitals in the region, with many children being abducted from these places. The key locations where such incidents have regularly occurred are Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The pandemic has further escalated the situation at hand.

The below chart shows the steady increase in violations against children in West and Central Africa since 2011.

The violations these boys and girls face may be different from each other. Girls are at an increased risk of being victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence while boys are at increased risk of being killed and maimed, especially when used in fighting roles. The boys have also been reported to be recruited by state-backed armed forces for fighting these civil wars. There are many cases of the boys being sexually abused too.

The impact of Covid-19 resulting in closure of schools and public welfare centers have increased the number of children left alone and at risk. It has also limited the access of humanitarian actors to communities, impacting the ability to document violations against children.

The above chart shows the figures of children who reached out to UNICEF and other organizations for mental health and psychosocial support since 2015.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNICEF and protection partners estimate that 30 to 40 per cent of children recruited are girls. However, in 2020, they accounted for only 15 per cent of children officially released and who received services. Because of the stigma that may arise from being associated with armed forces and non-state armed groups, many girls avoid seeking support through reintegration services. In addition to being recruited, girls are often victims of other violations including abduction, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. Some girls are more comfortable to seek help through gender-based violence services.

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The West and Central Africa region has the largest number of United Nations verified cases of sexual violence against children, including rape, since 2005. With more than 8,000 children victims of sexual violence since 2005, the region accounts for 57 per cent of all verified instances of sexual violence committed against children globally. Undoubtably, more cases are not reported due to the stigma attached to grave violations against girls and to sexual violence.

Jihadi groups are a major source of problem

Mali, officially the Republic of Mali, is a landlocked country in West Africa. Mali is the eighth-largest country in Africa with 67 per cent of its population estimated to be under the age of 25 in 2017. Religion in Mali is predominantly Islam with an estimated 95 per cent of the population are Muslim, with the remaining 5 percent of Malians adhere to traditional African religions such as the Dogon religion, or Christianity.

One of the main reasons for the instability in this region is down to the instability that arose in 2012 when groups such as JNIM (Jama’at al Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin), the Ansar Dine and the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) came to prominence.

The UNICEF report mentions the region of Sahel as a primary area of concern. The Sahel part of Africa includes from west to east parts of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, the extreme south of Algeria, Niger, the extreme north of Nigeria, the extreme north of Cameroon and Central African Republic, central Chad, central and southern Sudan, the extreme north of South Sudan, Eritrea, and the extreme north of Ethiopia.

More than 2,200 children in West, Central Africa have been victims of sexual violence since 2016, the UNICEF report said. (Photo: Reuters)

In recent times, the group Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahel region have contributed to the violence, extremism, and instability of the region.

One of the voices mentioned in the UNICEF report is that of Khady (name changed for security reasons), a girl who was abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram along with 300 girls from the community. Khady’s father and mother were farmers who worked hard to send her to school. She had always wanted to be a doctor. However, at age 11, Khady’s sister was abducted by Boko Haram during an attack in her community. This was a devastating time for her and her family. She dropped out of school out of fear and married someone at the age of 15 years. She gave birth to twins just a few months before her abduction.

“I never knew how wicked this world could be until I was abducted,” said the 18-year-old Khady.

Khady suffered greatly at the hands of the non-state armed group. She was enslaved, beaten, mistreated, raped, and married off to an unknown man.

“I was always praying and crying to go back home to my parents. At some point I lost hope,” she recalled.

She attempted running away twice but only succeeded on the third attempt. However, her sister has not yet been released, and her twin children who were separated from her by the non-state armed group are still in captivity.

When the UNICEF supported ‘Search for Common Ground’ programme started, Khady was one of the beneficiaries who learnt how to sew. She was given a sewing machine after her training and has been using her skills to help her mother and herself.

UNICEF is requesting different stakeholders involved in the region to end the conflict and prevent violations against children in addition to perpetrators being held accountable. The UN is also urging the aid groups to further increase the documentation of violations and to work to prevent and respond to them. UNICEF estimates say that the program needs more than $92 million to protect children in emergencies across West and Central Africa, more than half of which is not yet funded.

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