Children are on the front lines of armed conflicts, warns the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in a report Posted this Friday.
“They are increasingly caught up in the armed conflict, as victims of escalating military confrontations, or as targets of non-state armed groups,” said the agency’s regional director for West and Central Africa.
“The year 2022 was especially violent for the children of the central Sahel. All parties to the conflict must urgently stop the attacks both against children and against their schools, health centers and homes,” added Marie-Pierre Poirier.
In Burkina Faso, during the first nine months of 2022, three times more deaths of children were confirmed than in the same period of 2021. Most of the children died from gunshot wounds during attacks on their villages or from improvised explosive devices or explosive remnants of war.
“The scale of the crisis in the central Sahel and, increasingly, in neighboring coastal countries, urgently requires a stronger humanitarian response, as well as long-term investment in resilient essential social services that help consolidate social cohesion, sustainable development and a better future for children,” said Pierre Poirier.
Intensification of the armed conflict
The armed conflict has become increasingly brutal. Some of the armed groups operating in large areas of Mali, Burkina Faso and, increasingly, Niger, employ tactics that include the blockade of cities and towns and the sabotage of water supply networks. According to recent projections, more than 20,000 people in the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will find themselves experiencing “catastrophic” level food insecurity by June 2023.
Armed groups opposed to state-run education systematically burning and looting schoolsand threaten, kidnap or kill teachers.
More than 8,300 schools have closed in the three countries because they have been directly targeted by armed groups, because teachers have fled or because parents have been displaced or too scared to send their children to school. More than one in five schools in Burkina Faso have closed and 30% of schools in the Tillabéri region of Nigeria are no longer functioning due to the conflict.
Hostilities are spreading to the northern border regions of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo, remote communities with little infrastructure and resources, where children have extremely limited access to essential services and protection.
In 2022, at least 172 violent incidents were recorded in the northern border areas of the four countries. in Beninwhich has been the most affected country, up to 16% of the population is considered at risk, according to a regional surveillance network. In both Benin and Togo, nine schools in the northern regions of the countries had closed or ceased to function due to insecurity by the end of 2022.
Climate crisis and malnutrition
The crisis is taking place in one of the regions most affected on the planet by climate change. Temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Rainfall is more irregular and intense, causing flooding that reduces crop yields and contaminates scarce water reserves. In 2022, the worst flooding in years damaged or destroyed 38,000 homes in Niger, which ranks seventh globally on the Children’s Climate Risk Index.
Climate change threatens the livelihoods of families and many end up leaving their homes. The influx of displaced people generates more tensions and puts women and children at risk in areas where water is available.
Once in the displacement camps, the children are exposed to malnutrition and disease.
Lack of funding
The crisis in the central Sahel remains chronically and critically underfunded: in 2022, UNICEF received only a third of its $391 million appeal for the region. In 2023, the agency has appealed for $473.8 million to support the humanitarian response in this area and in neighboring coastal countries.
To address the escalating threat to children, UNICEF urges governments across the central Sahel and affected coastal countries, along with technical and financial partners, to significantly increase investment in expansion of access to essential social services and protection, as key pathways to peace and security.
This surge should focus on strengthening and supporting local systems, networks and workforces that are first responders during crises, and can consistently reach children, especially in hard-to-reach communities.
Also, the UN agency urges all parties to the conflict to fulfill their obligations moral and legal rights to protect children and the infrastructures on which they depend for their survival, protection and education. This includes:
- end attacks on children and the services they depend on
- respect humanitarian space and access
- apply specific protocols on the treatment of children affected by the armed conflict
- engage with the United Nations on concrete action plans to end grave violations against children