117 children have been used in Boko Haram suicide attacks since 2014, UNICEF has said in a new report released on Wednesday.
“In the first three months of this year, the number of children used in bomb attacks is nearly the same as the whole of last year – this is the worst possible use of children in conflict,” says Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa.
“The increase reflects an alarming tactic by the insurgents, according to the report Silent Shame: Bringing out the voices of children caught in the Lake Chad crisis.”
UNICEF said the children, mostly girls, have been used to carry out bomb attacks in public places across Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
“As a consequence, girls, boys and even infants have been viewed with increasing fear at markets and checkpoints, where they are thought to carry explosives. These children are victims, not perpetrators,” says Poirier.
“Forcing or deceiving them into committing such horrific acts is reprehensible.”
The report provides troubling accounts by children who were held in captivity and shows how they are met with deep suspicion when they return to their communities.
“In interviews, many children who have been associated with Boko Haram report that they keep their experience secret because they fear the stigmatization and even violent reprisals from their community. Some are compelled to bear their horrors in silence as they remove themselves from other groups for fear they might be outed and stigmatized.”
The report reveals the challenges local authorities face with children who have been intercepted at checkpoints and taken into administrative custody for questioning and screening, raising concerns about the prolonged periods of custody.
In 2016, almost 1,500 children were under administrative custody in the four countries.
UNICEF asked parties to the conflict to commit to the following actions to protect children in the region.
“End grave violations against children by Boko Haram including the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict as so-called ‘suicide bombers’.
“Move children from a military to civilian environment as quickly as possible. Children who have been taken into custody solely for their alleged or actual association to armed groups should be immediately handed-over to civilian authorities for reintegration and support. Handover protocols should be in place in each of the four countries for children encountered during military operations.”
“Provide care and protection for separated and unaccompanied children. All children affected by the crisis need psychosocial support and safe spaces to recover,” it said.