Grave violations of children’s rights in conflict on the rise around the world, warns UNICEF | UNICEF Canada: For Every Child Skip to main content
Publication Date: 2021/12/31

TORONTO, 30 December 2021 – This year has brought a spate of grave violations against children in both protracted and new conflicts, UNICEF warned today.

From Afghanistan to Yemen, and Syria to northern Ethiopia, thousands of children paid a devastating price as armed conflict, intercommunal violence, and insecurity continued. Just last week, four children were reportedly among the victims as at least 35 people were killed – including two Save the Children staff members - in Kayah State in Eastern Myanmar. This was just the latest high-profile example of the devastating toll conflict takes on children, and the ongoing threats to humanitarian workers.  

“We as a global community and as Canadians cannot continue to stand by while grave violations continue to be committed on children in conflict situations. It’s deeply infuriating to see that girls and boys around the world are increasingly recruited as child soldiers, exploited for sex or used as shields or suicide bombers,” said David Morley, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada. “Year after year, parties to conflict continue to demonstrate a dreadful disregard for the rights and wellbeing of children. Every effort should be made to keep these children safe from harm and protect their childhoods."

While data for 2021 is not yet available, in 2020, 26,425 grave violations against children were verified by the UN. The first three months of 2021 saw a slight decrease in the overall number of verified grave violations, however verified cases of abduction and sexual violence continued to rise at alarming rates - by more than 50 and 10 per cent, respectively - compared with the first quarter of the previous year.

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.

This year marked 25 years since the publication of the seminal Graça Machel report ‘The impact of war on children’, which urged the international community to take concrete action to protect children from the scourge of war and called on the United Nations and the global community to act to protect children.

The United Nations 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 over the past 16 years. These are only the cases verified through the UN-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, established in 2005 to systematically document the most egregious violations against children in conflict zones. The true figures will be far higher.

Afghanistan, for example, has the highest number of verified child casualties since 2005, at more than 28,500 – accounting for 27 per cent of all verified child casualties globally. Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa region has the highest number of verified attacks on schools and hospitals since 2005, with 22 such attacks verified in the first six months of this year.

In October, UNICEF highlighted that 10,000 children had been killed or maimed in Yemen since fighting escalated in March 2015, the equivalent of four children every day.

Away from the headlines, the UN has verified violations in countries like Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Libya, Mozambique, and the Philippines.

Despite decades of advocacy with parties to conflict and those who influence them, as well as enhanced monitoring, reporting and response mechanisms for grave rights violations, children continue to bear the brunt of war. Each day, girls and boys living in areas under conflict endure unspeakable horrors that no human should ever experience.

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 per cent of all child casualties, resulting in more than 3,900 children killed and maimed. Explosive weapons can have lethal and long-lasting effects on children, including the disruption of services essential for their survival.

In many instances, children fall victim to multiple grave rights violations. In 2020, for example, 37 per cent of abductions verified by the UN led to the recruitment and use of children in war, with such instances surpassing 50 per cent in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

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 shockingly low number 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,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “As we approach the end of 2021, I call on all parties to conflict to end attacks against children, uphold their rights and strive for peaceful political resolutions to war.”


Notes for editors:

The six grave violations are: Killing and maiming of children; Recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups; Sexual violence against children; Attacks against schools or hospitals; Abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access for children.

Find out more about UNICEF’s work for children in conflict here.

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Laurence Bodjrenou
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