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UNICEF warns of rising child rights violations in combat zones

Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia are among the countries where thousands of children have been abused in the past year due to armed conflict
UNICEF/Siegfried Modola

© UNICEF/Siegfried Modola  -   Three brothers sit in what has become their home in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of the western Afghan city of Herat.

Grave violations of children's rights in conflict areas, whether long-standing or new crises, continue to grow, warned the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). With 266,000 violations against children committed and reported over the past 16 years in such areas, the UN estimates that the actual numbers would be much higher.

From Afghanistan to Yemen, Syria to northern Ethiopia, thousands of children have paid a devastating price over the past twelve months as a result of armed conflict, inter-communal violence and insecurity. Most recently, four children died in Kayah State in eastern Myanmar.

"Year after year, parties to conflict again demonstrate a terrible disregard for the rights and well-being of children," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "Children suffer and die because of this callousness. Every effort must be made to keep them safe from harm.

While official figures for 2021 are not yet available, the UN verified 26,425 grave violations* of children's rights in conflict zones in 2020. While the first three months of 2021 saw a slight decrease in the total number of such abuses verified, specific cases of abduction and sexual violence continued to increase at an alarming rate - by more than 50% and 10% respectively - when compared to the first quarter of the previous year.

The highest number of verified child abductions occurred in Somalia, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Lake Chad Basin countries (Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger). Confirmed cases of sexual violence occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and the Central African Republic.

All these data coincide with the 25th anniversary of the publication of Graça Machel's report "The Impact of War on Children", which urged the international community to take concrete action to protect children from the scourge of war and called on the United Nations and the world to act to protect children.

© UNICEF/Nicolas Rice-Chudeau Estas niñas se encuentran fuera de su escuela, destrozada, a orillas del lago Tanganica, en la República Democrática del Congo.
© UNICEF/Nicolas Rice-Chudeau - These girls stand outside their shattered school on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The 266,000 violations in the last 16 years is a declining figure

The United Nations has verified 266,000 cases of grave child rights violations in more than 30 conflict situations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America over the past 16 years. 

This figure only includes cases substantiated through the UN-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on Children and Armed Conflict, a procedure established in 2005 to systematically document the most egregious violations against children in conflict zones. The actual figures would be much higher.

For example, Afghanistan has the highest number of verified child victims since 2005 with more than 28,500, a figure that represents 27 per cent of all substantiated child victims globally.

Since 2005, the Middle East and North Africa are the regions with the highest number of verified attacks on schools and hospitals, with 22 such attacks in the first six months of this year.

UNICEF highlighted last October that since the intensification of fighting in Yemen in March 2015, some 10,000 children have reportedly been killed or maimed - the equivalent of four children every day. Away from the headlines, the UN has found violations in countries such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Libya, Mozambique and the Philippines.

In 2020, weapons and explosive remnants of war were responsible for almost 50 per cent of all child casualties, resulting in more than 3,900 children killed and maimed.

OCHA/Giles Clarke Edit Dos niñas que han sido desplazadas debido al conflicto viven ahora en un asentamiento apoyado por ACNUR en las afueras de Adén, Yemen.
OCHA/Giles Clarke Edit - Two girls who have been displaced by the conflict now live in a UNHCR-supported settlement on the outskirts of Aden, Yemen.
UNICEF urges countries to take targeted action

UNICEF calls on all parties to conflict, including the 61 listed in the annexes of the Secretary-General's 2021 annual report on children and armed conflict, to commit to formal action plans and take concrete steps to protect children.

First and foremost, it calls for preventing grave violations, releasing children from armed forces and groups, protecting them from sexual violence and stopping attacks on hospitals and schools. Since 2005, only 37 such plans have been signed by the parties to the conflict, a number that UNICEF says is "surprisingly low given what is at stake for children.

"I call on all parties to conflict to end attacks on children, uphold their rights and work towards peaceful political solutions to the war," Fore said.

*The six grave violations of children's rights are: killing and maiming of children; recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups; sexual violence against children; attacks on schools or hospitals; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access to children.