West and Central Africa have highest numbers of child soldiers: UN report

More children in West and Central Africa have been recruited and used by armed groups or been the victims of sexual violence over the past five years than in any other region of the world, a new report shows.

The report released Tuesday from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found more than 57 million children in the region need humanitarian assistance. The figure has nearly doubled in the past year amid increasing armed conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNICEF found the region has the second-highest number of child abductions of anywhere in the world and is among the region most affected by attacks on schools or hospitals.

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Since 2016, more than 21,000 children were recruited to become child soldiers, there were more than 2,200 instances of sexual violence against children, more than 3,500 children were abducted and more than 1,500 schools or hospitals were attacked, according to the report.

More than 8,000 children in the region have been victims of sexual violence since 2005. Fifty-seven percent of all verified instances of sexual violence committed against children globally occurred in West and Central Africa. 

More than 4,800 children have been abducted since 2005. More than 1,300 children were abducted last year alone.

Nearly one of every two children whom the U.N. verified as being recruited to serve as a child soldier came from West and Central Africa. In 2020 alone, over 4,500 children were recruited and used as part of armed forces and non-state armed groups. 

For the past five years, the region has consistently seen some of the world’s highest numbers of United Nations verified grave violations against children in armed conflict, and since 2005, roughly a quarter of such violations globally have taken place in West and Central Africa. 

UNICEF defines six grave violations against children, including killing or maiming, recruitment in armed conflict, abduction, sexual violence, attacks on schools or hospitals, and denial of humanitarian aid.

“The numbers and trends are extremely worrying for current and future generations of children,” UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa Marie-Pierre Poirier said to The Associated Press.

“Not only have grave violations against children perpetrated by parties to the conflicts not stopped across West and Central Africa, but we have even seen a spike over the past five years, with a 50 percent increase in the total number of verified grave violations,” she said.