Trapped behind conflict in a volatile region, children in West and Central Africa have become the most recruited by armed groups with the highest number of victims of sexual violence in the world, said a new report Tuesday by the United Nations Children's Fund.
For five years the region has seen an increasing number of new and protracted conflicts, with more than 21,000 children recruited by government forces and armed groups, more than 2,200 victims of sexual violence and more than 3,500 abducted, making it the region with the second highest number of abductions in the world, said the report.
"In our region, we have the highest numbers of children who suffered from recruitment and use (from armed groups). We have the highest number of children who suffered from rape and sexual abuse. We are the second region of children suffering from abduction," Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF's regional director for West and Central Africa told the Associated Press.
"Keeping in mind that these violations are cumulative, it is very rare that a child is only subjected to to one of them," she said.
Since 2005, when the U.N. established a system to monitor and report on grave violations against children, such as recruitment, abduction, rape and attacks on schools and hospitals, one out of four violations globally was committed in West and Central Africa.
In conflict-affected countries such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin regions, violence has had devastating humanitarian consequences for children and communities, with the pandemic exacerbating the situation, said the U.N.
More than 57 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, a number that's doubled since last year as a result of conflict and coronavirus.
While the DRC (the Democratic Republic of Congo) registers the world's highest percentage of children being recruited and used by armed groups and where children are in an extremely vulnerable situation, UNICEF is concerned about the position in other countries.
"The DRC still represents 71 percent of all recruitment and use (of children in armed conflicts). But you can see that Mali and Central African Republic represent the fastest increase in the last year," Poirier said.
Some countries have been a concern for nearly a decade or more. This year three new contexts were added to the U.N.'s annual report on children and armed conflict, including Cameroon, Burkina Faso and the Lake Chad Basin.
The report highlights the problem of girls that are recruited or kidnapped by armed groups. They represent between 30 to 40 percent of the children in the hands of those groups, according to the report, and are the ones who suffered rape and sexual violence more.
"On the rape and sexual abuse, the majority are girls, but these girls have immense hesitation even when they escape, even when they are reintegrated," the head of UNICEF in the region explained.
"Many hesitate to ask for support, many hesitate to use the services because of the immense stigma associated with what happened to them."
The U.N. is calling for parties to the conflict to prevent and end violations against children, for perpetrators to be held accountable and for aid groups to increase the documentation of violations as well as preventing and responding to them, not just providing health and education but also psychological support.
The agency needs more than $92 million for child protection in emergencies across West and Central Africa, more than half of which is not yet funded.
"The situation is just snowballing in the wrong direction" Poirier said.