Child Protection

Protecting children from all forms of violence and exploitation

Young girl holding her belongings and walking
©UNICEF/ Syria 2017/ Delil Souleiman


1. Conflicts and displacement - Protracted and high intensity conflicts; massive conflict-induced displacement, within and across borders; enormous and ever growing humanitarian and protection needs; grave and widespread child rights violations; constant erosion of the laws of war: these are some of the main challenges for advancing the child protection agenda in MENA in humanitarian contexts.  The huge access and security constraints, the complexity and fragmentation of armed actors, the lack of adequate funding and the limited partners’ capacity on the ground, are significantly hindering UNICEF’s capacity to protect children in war and deliver services at scale.

There are over 61 million children living in countries affected by war in MENA out of a total child population of nearly 166 million. This is to say that over a third of children in MENA are affected by ongoing conflicts and violence. One in every three children. In this region, living in war is becoming the “new normal” for millions of children. Adolescents and youth comprise a signification proportion of the population in humanitarian contexts. This age group is the most exposed to protection risks such as child marriage, recruitment and child labor.


2. High prevalence of Violence against Children (VAC) -  Even in non-conflict settings, VAC remains prevalent in MENA, primarily related to pervasive harmful social norms and practices (e.g. child marriage, female genital mutilation and cutting - FGM/C, child discipline, sexual violence and gender-based violence). There is mounting evidence of the violence and exploitation suffered by refugee and migrant children throughout their journeys, particularly affecting those who travel unaccompanied. Smuggling and trafficking of children throughout the main MENA migration routes are issues of greatest concern.  


Violence in the home is widespread in the region, between 82-88% on average. Over 46 million children under 5 (88% average) experience/or are impacted by some forms of violence in MENA. After child marriage has been steadily declining in the MENA region there is now disconcerting evidence that it is increasing once again as a result of protracted conflict and prolonged displacement (e.g. child marriage in Syria’s refugee hosting countries tripled in the last few years). A UNICEF recent study found that 77% of adolescents and youths moving through the Central Mediterranean route reported exploitation with those from sub-Saharan countries facing considerably higher protection risks, including trafficking.


3. Weak and under-resourced national child protection delivery systems – Overall, public financing of child protection systems and services remains inadequate in all MENA countries. The social services infrastructures and workforce are limited, often under resourced and with inadequate capacity, thus hindering the availability of high quality services at national scale. Recourse to deprivation of liberty for children continues to be prevalent, including for national security reasons and based on the child migration status. The juvenile death penalty is still de jure and de facto applicable in a few countries in MENA.


UNICEF Child Protection has a clear mandate to contribute to the realization of the SDGs, in particular Goals 5.1, 5.2, 5.3 (gender equality, VAC, harmful practices), 8.7 (child labour, trafficking) and 16.2 (access to justice). In order to achieve our protection commitments to all children in the MENA region, UNICEF is working towards:

  • Strengthening child protection in humanitarian action by scaling up mental health and psychosocial programming and specialized services for children and caregivers, including to address GBV issues, particularly in high intensity conflicts where the impact on children is the greatest.
  • Strengthening monitoring and reporting on grave violations against children and stepping up advocacy with all parties – at regional and country level - for enhanced compliance with IHL, IHRL and child protection standards and for greater accountability.
  • Accelerating investment in national child protection delivery systems, including through supporting country and regional level initiatives aiming at improving cross-sectoral coordination, reinforcing the social services workforce, strengthening case management and data collection systems, supporting the justice and law enforcement sectors, and promoting the necessary policy and legal reforms.
  • Stepping up support to UNICEF country offices to scale up implementation of behavioural change and social mobilization and communication initiatives to address protection issues such as child marriage, FGM/C, corporal punishment and discrimination and improve measurement of results.
  • Enhancing greater coherence and complementary between humanitarian and development programmes in child protection by promoting the use of existing systems, where possible, to deliver humanitarian services.
  • Strengthening the evidence base especially on key “emerging issues” in MENA for improved advocacy and programming (e.g. on children and “extreme violence’, migration etc.) and promoting cross learning across different countries.

Across the region, we are working closely with governments, civil society partners, research institutions, private sector and other UN agencies to build strong child protection systems to prevent and mitigate harm for children and to ensure that if and when they are harmed they get the needed care and protection to recover. We provide technical and financial support to reforming national polices and laws to align them with international standards, strengthen service delivery systems, support monitoring systems and data generation for evidence-based interventions, leverage funds and expertise and raise awareness on protection issues among both children themselves and other key duty bearers such as governments and care-givers.