UNICEF Warns of Rise in Grave Violations Against Children in Conflict


Every day, girls and boys living in areas under conflict endure unspeakable horrors that no human should ever experience, UNICEF warned today.

This year in particular brought a spate of grave violations against children in both protracted and new conflicts. As armed conflict, intercommunal violence and insecurity continued — from Afghanistan to Yemen to Syria and northern Ethiopia — thousands of children paid a devastating price.

Just last week, four children were reportedly among at least 35 people killed in Kayah State in Eastern Myanmar, the latest high-profile example of the toll on children.

The issue first gained prominence 25 years ago, with Graça Machel’s seminal report on the impact of armed conflict on children, presented to the UN General Assembly. The 1996 report urged member states and the global community to take concrete and comprehensive action to improve protection and care of children in conflict situations — and to prevent conflicts from occurring.

Six violations against children identified and condemned back in 2005

In 2005, the UN Security Council identified and condemned six grave violations against children in times of war: killing and maiming of children; recruitment or use of children in armed forces and armed groups; attacks on schools or hospitals; rape or other grave sexual violence; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access for children.

Despite years of advocacy with parties to conflict and those who influence them — despite enhanced multi-agency monitoring, reporting and response activities — children continue to bear the brunt of war. Over the last 16 years, the UN has verified 266,000 cases of grave violations against children in more than 30 conflict situations across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. In 2020 alone, there were 26,425 verified grave violations against children.

Cases of abductions and sexual violence rising at alarming rates

Although there was a slight decrease in the overall number of verified grave violations during the first three months of 2021, verified cases of abduction and sexual violence continued to rise at alarming rates — by more than 50 percent and 10 percent, respectively — compared with the first quarter of the previous year. (Complete data for 2021 is not yet available.)

Cases of violations are verified by the UN-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM), which was established in 2005 to systematically document the most egregious violations against children in conflict zones. True figures are believed to be far higher. 

“Year after year, parties to conflict continue to demonstrate a dreadful disregard for the rights and wellbeing of children,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Children are suffering, and children are dying because of this callousness. Every effort should be made to keep these children safe from harm.” (Read Fore’s Op-ed on the topic in Newsweek.)

UNICEF: more action needed to protect children in conflict 

UNICEF is calling for all parties to conflict – including the 61 listed in the annexes of the 2021 Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict – to commit to formal action plans and take concrete measures to protect children. These include preventing grave violations from occurring in the first place, releasing children from armed forces and groups, protecting children from sexual violence, and stopping attacks on hospitals and schools.

Just 37 such plans have been signed by parties to conflict since 2005 – a number UNICEF calls “shockingly low” given the stakes for children.

“Ultimately, children living through war will only be safe when parties to conflict take concrete action to protect them and stop committing grave violations,” Fore said. “I call on all parties to conflict to end attacks against children, uphold their rights and strive for peaceful political resolutions to war.”

Use of explosive weapons a growing threat to children and families

According to the verified data:

  • Afghanistan has seen the highest number of verified child casualties since 2005, at more than 28,500 – accounting for 27 percent of all verified child casualties globally
  • The Middle East and North Africa region has the highest number of verified attacks on schools and hospitals since 2005; 22 such attacks were verified in the first six months of 2021
  • 10,000 children have been killed or maimed in Yemen since fighting escalated in March 2015 — the equivalent of four children every day
  • the use of explosive weapons, particularly in populated areas, is a persistent and growing threat to children and their families; in 2020, explosive weapons and explosive remnants of war were responsible for nearly 50 percent of all child casualties, resulting in more than 3,900 children killed and maimed
  • children often fall victim to multiple grave rights violations; in 2020, 37 percent of abductions verified by the UN led to the recruitment and use of children in war
  • verified abductions were highest in Somalia, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the countries of the Lake Chad Basin: Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger
  • verified instances of sexual violence were highest in the DRC, Somalia and the Central African Republic
  • other countries with verified violations include Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Libya, Mozambique and the Philippines

UNICEF: Saving and protecting vulnerable children in emergencies for 75 years

Over 400 million children live in countries affected by violent conflict today. Many are forcibly displaced, sometimes orphaned and unaccompanied. UNICEF deploys a number of interventions and response services to protect children in conflict and others who are vulnerable to violence. These include:

  • caring for and working to reunite children who have been separated from their families
  • creating Child-Friendly Spaces that give children a safe space to rest, play, learn and receive psychosocial support 
  • efforts to stop trafficking and to dismantle systematic sexual abuse, which is increasingly used as a weapon of war, and providing recovery services to victims
  • protecting children from military conscription and helping with the release and reintegration of children from armed forces into their communities
  • supporting millions of children in areas affected by landmines and explosive weapons with prevention and survivor assistance interventions
  • providing emergency relief essentials to victims, including safe water, food, hygiene kits, medical services and more

Learn more about how children have become frontline targets in armed conflicts — and UNICEF’s agenda for global action to better protect them.

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Support UNICEF’s work around the world. Donate today.

Top photo: On July 17, 2021, Shumuye, 10, rests on a hospital bed with his father Barhe Atsma at his side in Ayder Hospital in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The family lives in Yechella, in central Tigray, an area that had seen intense violence; Atsma was taking advantage of a reprieve in armed fighting to farm some land when Shumuye picked up what his father said was a grenade – “It had a ring on it” – and it exploded, killing his friend and shattering his leg. Conflict erupted in Tigray in November 2020. UNICEF emergency response teams are on the ground meeting urgent needs of impacted children and families, delivering water, health care, nutrition and protection. © UNICEF/UN0497322/Nesbitt

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