By Sherry Lee
More than 8000 children were killed and maimed in armed conflicts throughout the world in 2021 as conflict escalated, the United Nations reported.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres revealed in the UN annual “Children and Armed Conflict” report (CAAC) released on Monday that armed conflicts killed 2,515 children and maimed 5,555 others in 2021, with a total of 8,070 victims.
The atrocities occured mainly in Afghanistan, Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, and Yemen, with the report citing that children were killed and maimed increasingly by explosive remnants of wars and improvised explosive devices and landmines.
UN verifies over 19,100 child victims of war
The victims were among 19,165 youngsters who suffered from 23,982 verified “grave violations” last year, including killing, maiming, recruitment, rape, abduction, attacks on schools or hospitals, and detention.
At least 1,600 of those children were victims of multiple violations, the report found.
Guterres attributed the crimes against children in 2021 to conflict escalation, the multiplication of armed actors, the use of mines, improvised explosive devices, explosive remnants of war and explosive weapons in populated areas, saying that they “had a severe impact on the protection of children”.
Non-State armed groups were responsible for 55 % of violations, while state forces accounted for 25 %, and the rest of the violations resulted from crossfire, the use of improvised explosive devices, explosive remnants of war and landmines, or were committed by unidentified perpetrators.
“Cross-border conflicts and intercommunal violence affected children, in particular in the central Sahel and Lake Chad basin regions, while coups and takeovers aggravated the situation of children in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Myanmar and the Sudan,” Guterres said in the annual report.
The places where most children were affected by grave violations in 2021 were Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Somalia, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen, while Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ukraine were mentioned in the annual report as new places of concern.
The most prevalent violations registered in 2021 were killing and maiming, followed by the recruitment and use of 6,310 children in fighting, with Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, and the Central African Republic having the highest number of such abuses.
Abduction and sexual violence on a sharp rise
Cases of abduction and sexual violence continued to rise at alarming rates in 2021, both rose by 20% from 2020, the report found.
At least 1,326 children were raped or sexually assaulted, with 98% of victims being girls. The highest number of children raped and sexually abused were in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, the Central African Republic and Nigeria.
The sexual violence these girls suffered from includes rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage. Girls that were forcibly married and had children were often rejected by their families and communities and struggled with resuming their education or socioeconomic activities, the report found.
However, cases of sexual violence continued to be vastly underreported, due to stigmatization, the fear of reprisals, harmful social norms, the absence of services, impunity, the lack of humanitarian access and safety concerns.
While 70 per cent of children affected by grave violations were boys, the number of girls, who were casualties of killing and maiming, abduction and sexual violence, increased.
“By 2020, one out of four children victims of grave violations were girls, but by 2021, one out of three are girls,” Virginia Gamba, the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, told reporters at the launch of the annual report on Monday.
Abduction is one of the fastest-rising violations against children in armed conflicts, the report found. Nearly 3500 children were abducted in 2021, of whom 30 % were girls. The abduction of girls had increased by 41 % compared to 2020.
Gamba revealed many of the girls abducted were 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, citing it is not a random act in a conflict.
In addition, over 2800 children were detained by armed parties, who were particularly vulnerable to torture, sexual violence and other abuses.
Plight of Children
Below are some of the individual cases reported specially by the UN in its report, showing the plight of boys and girls affected by armed conflicts.
Recruitment and Use
In Syria, a teenage girl disappeared in late 2021 after leaving her house for class in Al-Hasakah Governorate. The family was informed by the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement that their daughter had been conscripted into the army and were told not to look for her.
Killing and Maiming
In Democratic Republic of the Congo, in February 2021, the Allied Democratic Forces invaded an area of Ndalya and wounded seven children with heavy knives. As a result of their injuries, the children died.
Rape and other Forms of Sexual Violence
In Burkina Faso (a country in West Africa), in February 2021, two 17-year-old girls and an adult woman looking for firewood were abducted by four armed individuals. The two children were raped, each by two armed men in the presence of the adult woman.
In Iraq, an incident dating back to 2014 but was only verified in 2021, terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) abducted and raped a 17-year-old girl in Ninewa. The girl was subsequently taken to Syria where she was held and bore a child while in captivity. The girl returned to Iraq in December 2020, forced to leave her child behind.
In Nigeria, in March, the Islamic State West Africa Province abducted 15 girls aged 9 to 17 in Borno state, while these girls were searching for firewood outside the IDP camps where they lived.
In Myanmar, a 15-year-old boy with a physical disability was abducted in August 2021 and used as a human shield by the Tatmadaw during fighting.
In Somalia, Al-Shabaab abducted 12 boys aged 13 to 17 in the Bay region for the purpose of recruitment and use.
Apart from detailing the crimes against children in conflicts last year, the UN chief also reported on progress made in protecting children.
“My Special Representative and country task forces made progress in engaging with parties in a number of countries, including Mali, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Sudan, Somalia, the Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen to protect children,” says Guterres in the annual report.
He added that their efforts resulted in the release of 12,214 children from armed groups and forces in countries including the Central African Republic, Colombia, DRC, Myanmar, and Syria.
The CAAC report, which included a blacklist of parties deemed responsible for abuses against children, was presented to the UN Security Council for further actions.
The Secretary-General urged the Security Council to ensure that child protection provisions and capacity are included in all relevant mandates of United Nations peacekeeping operations and special political missions, and member states to adopt policies to promote the rights of children. He also calls for the adoption of legislation that criminalizes violations of children rights in armed conflicts.
“I remain concerned by the scale and severity of grave violations committed against children. I call upon all parties to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international refugee law and to immediately end and prevent grave violations,” Guterres says.
Despite his efforts, the UN chief, who took office in 2017, comes under fire after repeatedly not listing all perpetrators in a “black list” to end violence against children. Read more.