UN: Thousands of Children Suffer Grave Abuses in War Zones

The United Nations said Monday that thousands of children in war zones suffered grave abuses including rape, maiming and death last year, and that concerns are growing for children in new regions of conflict, including Ukraine.

“The fact remains that hundreds, if not thousands, of children are victims of violence in armed conflict every day of every week of every month of every year in conflict-affected states and regions,” Virginia Gamba, the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, told reporters at the launch of the annual report.

The most dangerous places to be a child last year were Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Somalia and Yemen.

Gamba’s office, working with U.N. teams on the ground, verified nearly 24,000 grave violations against children. More than 8,000 were killed or maimed due to conflict, 6,310 were recruited and used in combat; and nearly 3,500 children were abducted.

Among worrying trends the report uncovered is the significant increase in abductions and sexual violence against children. Both were up 20% from 2020.

Gamba said many of the girls abducted are then trafficked, and that armed groups such as Boko Haram and West Africa’s branch of the Islamic State group target girls specifically for this purpose; it is not a random act of violence in a conflict. Ninety-eight percent of sexual violence documented in the report targeted girls.

While the vast majority of monitored violations were against boys — some 70% — overall the number of abuses against them has decreased, while girls suffered an increase in killing and maiming, abduction and rape.

“By 2020, one out of four children victims of grave violations were girls, but by 2021, one out of three are girls,” Gamba said. “The Lake Chad Basin region, which was included in children and armed conflict agenda last year, showed the most significant increase of girls affected by grave violations among all situations on the agenda.”

Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, Niger and Nigeria are all part of the Lake Chad Basin region and have suffered variations of instability, intercommunal violence, terrorism and conflict.

Naming and shaming

The annual report is known for “naming and shaming” governments that mistreat children. But the 2021 report had no surprise listings.

Fifty-seven parties to conflict, seven of which are government-related actors, are mentioned, while the rest are nonstate groups.

Among the state offenders are Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, which was listed for maiming, killing and raping children. Congo’s army, the FARDC, for raping children. Syria’s government forces and pro-government militias for recruiting, killing and maiming, raping and attacking schools and/or hospitals.

A lengthy list of nonstate groups, including terrorists and rebel groups such as Islamic State, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and al-Shabab were also cited for multiple violations.

Afghanistan’s Taliban was listed for recruiting, maiming, killing and abducting children, as well as attacking schools and hospitals. Gamba said monitoring in Afghanistan in 2021 ended on Aug. 15, when the Taliban seized power after the government collapsed and the U.N. switched its focus to the humanitarian emergency. But in those first 7 1/2 months, there were nearly 3,000 verified violations against children.

“It still is one of the low points in my life to look at what is happening in Afghanistan,” Gamba said.

She said monitors have resumed their work there “however we can.”

New conflicts

The special representative’s office has now been mandated by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to immediately begin monitoring four new situations of concern: Ethiopia, Mozambique, Ukraine and the Central Sahel.

On Ukraine, she is most concerned about attacks on schools and hospitals and the killing and maiming of children. Her Ukraine mandate starts immediately and includes both the protection of children and the prevention of abuses against them.

Good news

There were some positive developments in the report. Some countries that have been listed have seen improvement after signing action plans with Gamba’s office and engaging with them.

She pointed to South Sudan, which in 2018 was the second-highest offender with more than 4,000 violations against children each year.

“Today there is less than 300 a year,” Gamba said. “Why? The action plans put in place, measures put in place, laws, training, capacity that has been put in place.”

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