Child alert: Extreme jeopardy in the central Sahel
Millions in need amid spiraling armed conflict and punishing climate crises.
The Sahel has long been one of the most vulnerable regions in Africa. But armed conflict and intensifying military clashes are putting lives and livelihoods at risk, disrupting access to services and leaving the futures of the central Sahel’s children in extreme jeopardy.
In brutal new lows, children are being directly targeted by non-state armed groups who operate across vast swathes of Mali and Burkina Faso, and increasingly in Niger. Hundreds of children have been abducted across the three countries, many of them girls.
Since 2021, non-state armed groups have destroyed food reserves in a region that is among the hungriest and most malnourished on the planet. Some armed groups that oppose state-administered education burn and loot schools, and threaten, abduct or kill teachers. National security operations against armed groups, meanwhile, have resulted in multiple instances of children being killed, injured and arrested. Many schools and hospitals are being damaged or destroyed across the three countries.
The insecurity and displacement are spilling over central Sahel borders and unfolding in remote communities with scarce infrastructure and resources, where children already have very limited access to the services they depend on for survival and protection. All this is happening in one of the most climate-affected and water-scarce regions in the world.
This crisis urgently requires a stronger humanitarian response, but it also needs long-term, flexible investment for sustainable development that contributes to peacebuilding within these communities, especially for children. Tackling underlying causes, strengthening social services and anticipating crises can help countries build resilient societies with strong social cohesion that allow children to enjoy their rights and realize their potential.
Crisis at a glance
What’s happening in the central Sahel?
Caught between armed groups, national security operations and intercommunal violence children are finding themselves directly targeted by non-state armed groups who operate across large areas of the region. 2022 was a particularly violent year for children in the central Sahel, almost certainly the deadliest since armed conflict broke out in northern Mali over a decade ago.
In the early years of the crisis, the armed groups focused their attacks on security infrastructure and personnel and largely spared children and civilians; now their tactics suggest many are aiming to inflict maximum casualties and suffering on communities. Parties to the conflict exploit ethnic rivalries that turn communities against each other.
The pervasive insecurity has given rise to community self-defense groups, including some supported by governments, along with other militia that consider boys to be adults capable of bearing arms. The armed groups see these self-defense groups as supported by their communities, so they attack fighters and civilians, including children, without distinction.
How many people are affected?
Ten million children in the central Sahel need humanitarian assistance. The armed conflict has driven nearly 2.7 million people off their land into displacement camps or vulnerable host communities across the three countries. In Burkina Faso, three times more children were verified as killed during the first nine months of 2022 than in the same period in 2021, according to UN data.
The insecurity and displacement are also spilling over central Sahel borders, placing nearly 4 million children at risk in four West African coastal countries – Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo.
The crisis is marked by attacks on infrastructure…
In Burkina Faso, attacks include sabotaging water networks – cutting power lines and destroying generators or electrical panels at pumping stations that feed urban water supply systems – and damaging manual water pumps and storage facilities. Armed men threaten women on their way to water points by firing warning shots. Water points are also poisoned with fuel or animal carcasses.
Some armed groups that oppose state-administered education burn and loot schools, and threaten, abduct or kill teachers. By 2022, more than 8,300 schools had shut down across the central Sahel because they were directly targeted, teachers had fled, or because parents were displaced or too frightened to send their children to school. More than 1 in 5 schools across Burkina Faso have shut down, while 30 per cent of schools in Niger’s Tillaberi region are no longer functional due to the insecurity.
Without access to education, a generation of children living in conflict in West and Central Africa will grow up without the skills they need to reach their potential, and play their full role in their families and communities, and contribute to their countries and economies.
A changing climate is layering one crisis on top of another
The central Sahel is one of the most climate-affected and water-scarce regions on the planet. Temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Water tables have dropped, and wells need to be drilled up to twice as deep as a decade ago. Increasing urbanization, asphalt and cement surfaces and plastic pollution block water from permeating the soil.
At the same time, rainfall has become more erratic and intense, causing floods that reduce crop yields and contaminate already scarce water supplies – conditions that aggravate diseases such as pneumonia. The changing climate is robbing families of their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives.
It’s time to turn the page
UNICEF urges governments across the central Sahel and affected coastal countries, along with technical and financial partners, to prioritize expanding access to services and protection as pathways to peace and security. This should include reinforcing the capacities of the local workforces who are the first responders during crises, and who are consistently able to reach children, even in hard-to-reach areas.
It also means supporting community-based nutrition, health, child protection and water, sanitation and hygiene services including through emergency preparedness and training, as well as improving the quality and availability of education, training and income-generating opportunities that are crucial to protecting adolescents. It is critical to prevent harmful coping and survival mechanisms that include sexual exploitation, hazardous work, child marriage, forced migration and recruitment into armed groups.
How UNICEF is helping
UNICEF has a large operational footprint in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with almost 600 staff members working across the three national offices and 12 sub-offices, including in some of the most volatile areas. UNICEF is prioritizing a range of support initiatives, including:
- Ensuring the continuity of services. In 2022, working with local partners, UNICEF Mali reached more than 385,000 children with measles vaccinations, while in Niger, UNICEF and partners provided life-saving treatment to over 400,000 severely malnourished children. In Burkina Faso, UNICEF education and life-skills support teams reached more than 740,000 out-of-school children through formal and informal programmes including radio-based education.
- Strengthening protection for children affected by the armed conflict. Together with partners, UNICEF provides children released from armed groups, or who have suffered other violations of their rights, with intensive, months-long care and support for reintegration back to their families and communities. Separated and unaccompanied children are also reunited with their families or provided with suitable alternative care.
- Engaging young people and equipping them with skills to improve welfare, increase employability and build peace within their communities. In Benin, for example, more than 4,700 adolescents living in the northern border areas were trained as peer educators who provide reliable information on child marriage and early pregnancy, sexual harassment and abuse, along with resources on where to seek help.
- Delivering life-saving supplies in hard-to-reach areas. In 2022, for example, UNICEF Niger reached more than 60,000 people displaced by insecurity or flooding, with emergency supplies.
In an increasingly volatile world with more children in need than ever before, it is critical that UNICEF and partners have the right support. This means timely and flexible funding which enables us to respond quickly to crises and anticipate future risks. Flexible funding also helps us to ensure that our humanitarian response is based on need and that we can allocate resources equitably across crises. 👉🏾 Read about how flexible funding saves lives
Ten million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in dire need of humanitarian assistance – twice as many as in 2020 – largely due to spiralling conflict, while nearly 4 million children are at risk in neighbouring countries as hostilities between armed groups and national security forces spill across borders.
'Extreme Jeopardy' looks at how children are increasingly caught up in the armed conflict, as victims of intensifying military clashes, or targeted by non-state armed groups.