February 08, 2017

20 years on: children in conflict zones are still being killed, maimed, recruited and abused

Amal looks at her destroyed home in Sana’a, Yemen, after it was hit by an airstrike in April 2015

Photo credit: UNICEF / Jahaf

Billy Briggs

Education in emergencies writer

A special event today at the United Nations will mark the 20th anniversary of its Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, who serves to protect the rights of children affected by war. 

In her annual report, Leila Zerrougui takes a detailed look at the situation facing millions of children living in countries affected by conflict.

From Syria and Iraq in the Middle East to Myanmar in South-East Asia, millions of children across the world continue to suffer grave human rights abuses due to war and humanitarian crises.

In the annual Children and Armed Conflict report, the United Nations says notable progress had been achieved over the past 20 years. But it warns that the “basic rights of children continue to be regularly violated” - including the denial of education in many troubled places.

“In Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, South Sudan and Yemen, thousands of children are killed, maimed, recruited and used, and face acute humanitarian crises,” said Leila Zerrougui, the UN’s representative for the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

In her report, Zerrougui focuses on issues such as child soldiers and sexual violence while also highlighting the success of action plans in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Sudan which aim to to improve children’s lives.

The right of girls to education has continued to suffer with attacks on schools in places such Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Mali. In Nigeria, girls were increasingly being forced by Boko Haram to become suicide bombers.

Millions of children continue to suffer grave human rights abuses across the world

Photo credit: Children and Armed Conflict / Twitter

The Central African Republic was of particular concern in 2016. In November, there were clashes between exSéléka factions in the east resulting in many civilians - including children - being killed or wounded, with more than 11,000 persons displaced.

With the resumption of fighting last July in South Sudan, children there have also borne the brunt of a devastating ongoing conflict. 

Zerrougiu says: “In the three years since the start of the hostilities, children have had their right to life, survival and development violated on a daily basis, and at the time of writing there was little end in sight to the conflict.”

The screening of civilians - including children fleeing armed groups - emerged as a new concern in 2016, a practice that has led to the deprivation of liberty for some children, due to the “presumption of association with the armed groups they are fleeing”. 

Her report also highlights a rise in attacks on hospitals and a section focuses specifically on the impact of conflict on girls who suffer extraordinarily high rates of rape and sexual violence. 

The recruitment of girls is another urgent concern - they make up as much as 40% of children associated with armed groups.


“Despite the advances that have been achieved in those two decades, the basic rights of children are regularly violated and there are current issues of grave concern, “ Zerrougui writes.

The Middle East is one of the worst-affected regions. In addition to wars where thousands of children have been killed, maimed, and/or recruited, there are rapidly developing humanitarian crises of serious concern.

In Iraq, the UN children's agency UNICEF estimates that more than 500,000 children and their families were trapped in Mosul with food and medicine running out and clean water in short supply.

Syria continues to suffer terribly with some 500,000 children living in besieged areas, completely cut off from humanitarian aid.  

In Yemen, the war has put 1.5 million children at risk of acute malnutrition, while rights of children to health have been severely compromised by attacks on hospitals in not only Yemen but Afghanistan and Syria, among others. 

Children’s rights to liberty have also been impacted by government security responses with many children detained for their, or their parents’ alleged association, with armed groups.


The UN says it has continued to promote its Children, Not Soldiers campaign and engage with various parties to better protect the rights of children. 

There has been progress, the report says, including concrete action taken to release children who were allegedly associated with armed groups. 

Three new action [lans were signed and there has been notable progress in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Sudan.

“When there is political will and an openness to engage with the United Nations, Action Plans are one of the strongest tools available to generate tangible progress for boys and girls,” writes Zerrougui. 


Zerrougui says she met with the government, who agreed to implement an action plan to prevent the recruitment of children by the Afghan National Defence and security forces. Since her visit, the government has started 11 more child protection units, bringing the total to 17 nationwide. 

Little has been done to reduce numbers of child soldiers despite action plans being put in place

Photo credit: Children and Armed Conflict / Twitter

In relation to protecting education, she encouraged the government to take measures to prevent the military using schools and the education ministry issued two directives requesting security forces to stop using schools. 

She also asked the authorities to criminalise the practice of "bacha bazi", which is the sexual exploitation and abuse of boys by men in positions of power.


She continued to speak with Colombia government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army. 

In May, she travelled to Havana to witness the signing of an agreement to protect children which included a commitment for the separation of children from the camps of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army. 


Discussions moved forward with the Karenni National Progressive Party and Karenni Army, which signalled their readiness to sign an action plan to prevent the recruitment of children. 

The Executive Committee of the Kachin Independence Organization and Kachin Independence Army invited UNICEF to participate in a workshop on ending child recruitment. 

More than 100 children and young people recruited as children were released from the army and reintegrated into their communities last year. But the report adds: “Progress has, however, been constrained, pending the support of the government for action plans to be concluded with non-state armed groups.”

Sudan signed an action plan in 2016 to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in Sudan

Photo credit: Theirworld


In January 2016, an action plan was agreed with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition to prevent the recruitment of children.

In March, Zerrougiu visited Sudan to witness the signing of the plan. During her stay she was given access to 21 children who had been detained by the National Intelligence and Security Service for their alleged association with an armed group. 

The report says the children were released in September 2016.


The DCR continued to make progress to prevent the recruitment of children into the country’s armed forces, including by “realising most of the goals of the 2015 road map that had been developed to expedite the implementation of the action plan”. 

Impact of conflict on girls

Despite significant efforts, girls continue to be targeted with rape and other forms of sexual violence, often to “terrorise, humiliate and weaken their communities”. 

The report explains that armed conflicts are often characterised by a breakdown of the rule of law which makes girls more vulnerable to sexual violence.

During 2016, in Iraq and Syria, girls who were abducted and suffered sexual violence by armed groups were rarely able to get help due to ongoing conflict.

“In situations of displacement, girls are particularly vulnerable. In addition to discrimination related to race, religion or ethnicity, girls are also often subject to abuses based on their sex, and therefore to multiple forms of discrimination,” the report says.

In Nigeria, girls were increasingly being forced by Boko Haram to become suicide bombers.

The report notes that education is key to empowerment but children’s access is often denied, with schools the target of attacks. In Yemen, for example, more than 1.6 million children were already being kept out of schooling because of the war.

Forced marriage is another practice that has increasingly been used by armed groups as an show of power and control over populations.


Zerrougui says she remains “deeply concerned” at the scale and severity of the grave violations committed against children in 2016.

These included “alarming levels of killing and maiming, recruitment and use and denials of humanitarian access”. She calls upon the Human Rights Council and nations to take “all available measures” to prevent these violations. 

She calls for renewed efforts to protect young girls and refugee children affected by screening during counter-terrorism procedures. 

The report asks that nations who have not yet signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child must do so quickly. And they should bring in laws to “explicitly prohibit and criminalise the recruitment and use of children by armed forces or groups and the use of children in hostilities”.

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