Children under attack: Six grave violations against children in times of war

How children have become frontline targets in armed conflicts.

A young child stands in a classroom of rubble in Saada, Yemen, staring at what used to be a chalkboard.
UNICEF/UN073959/Clarke for UNOCHA
27 September 2018

From widespread killing, maiming, abduction and sexual violence to recruitment into armed groups and strikes on schools and hospitals, as well as essential water facilities – children living in conflict zones around the world continue to come under attack at a shocking scale.

Today, one in four children live in a country affected by conflict or disaster, and 2017 saw a large increase in the number of documented violations against children in these areas.

Armed forces and armed groups are required by international humanitarian law to take measures to protect civilians, including children who are particularly vulnerable during times of war. Civilians must never be the target of attacks.

To better monitor, prevent, and end attacks on children, the United Nations Security Council has identified and condemned the following six grave violations against children in times of war, which were monitored in 20 conflict-affected countries around the world in 2017.

1. Killing and maiming of children

Since 2010, the number of UN-verified cases of children being killed and maimed has increased significantly. In 2017 alone, the UN verified more than 10,000 cases of children who were killed or maimed in conflict. Maiming includes any serious, permanent, or disabling injury to a child.

These violations contributed to the overall rise in the number of children globally affected by fighting in 2017, fueled by a growing disregard for the rules of war amidst indiscriminate violence in countries like Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

2. Recruitment and use of children by armed forces or armed groups

Tens of thousands of girls and boys are estimated to be recruited and used in conflicts worldwide. Many have been taken by force, while others join due to economic or social pressure. Children who are displaced or living in poverty are even more vulnerable to recruitment.

Children are recruited or used for various functions by armed forces and groups, including as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers and spies, or they are subjected to sexual exploitation.

The numbers of children recruited into armed forces are rising – verified cases increased four times in the Central African Republic (299) and doubled in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1,049) compared to 2016. The number of verified cases of the recruitment and use of children in Somalia (2,127), South Sudan (1,221), the Syrian Arab Republic (961) and Yemen (842) persisted at alarming levels.

On 17 April 2018 in Yambio, South Sudan, [NAMES CHANGED] (right-left) Ganiko, 12 yrs, and Jackson, 13 yrs, stand during a ceremony to release children from the ranks of armed groups and start a process of reintegration. Jackson and Ganiko were best friends when they served together with the armed group.
FILE PHOTO: On 17 April 2018 in Yambio, South Sudan, Ganiko*, 12, and Jackson*, 13, stand during a ceremony to release children from the ranks of armed groups and start a process of reintegration. Jackson and Ganiko were best friends when they served together with the armed group. (Names changed)

3. Attacks on schools or hospitals

Schools and hospitals should be protected spaces, where children are safe even in times of conflict. Yet, attacks against schools and hospitals during conflict have become a growing, and alarming, trend. These attacks range from partial or total destruction of schools or medical facilities, to the military use of buildings and attacks against staff.

Not only do these attacks put children’s lives at risk, they also disrupt their learning and limit their access to medical assistance, which can have a lifelong impact on their education, economic opportunities and overall health.

In the Philippines, for example, the siege of Marawi from May to October 2017 led to the destruction of more than 20 schools, hindering access to education for more than 22,000 children.

4. Rape or other sexual violence against children 

Millions of children and women around the globe live with the terrifying threat of sexual violence in conflict every day. In times of war, they are subjected to rape, sexual slavery or trafficking, forced marriage/pregnancy, or enforced sterilization. In some cases, sexual violence is used to intentionally humiliate a population or to force people from their homes.

Some armed groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, often specifically target girls, who are raped, forced to become wives of fighters or used to perpetrate suicide attacks. In February 2018, for instance, the group abducted 110 girls and one boy from a technical college in Dapchi, Yobe State, the majority of whom have since been released.

The widespread stigma around rape and sexual violence means it is a particularly under-reported issue affecting children in conflict, but it is clear that this violation remains all too common and that both girls and boys are at risk.

Silhouette of a Rohingya girl, Bangladesh
When her village in Myanmar was attacked, Maryam, 16, was raped and became pregnant. She is now living in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

5. Abduction of children

In areas affected by armed conflict, children are often captured or taken against their will, either temporarily or permanently, and subjected to exploitation or abuse.

In many cases, children who are abducted are also victims of other grave violations, like killing, maiming, sexual violence or recruitment into armed groups. They might also be held hostage or arbitrarily detained.

Parties to conflict also abduct children as an intentional act of violence or retaliation against civilian populations.

In 2017, there was a 70 per cent increase in the cases of child abduction. In Somalia alone, the Al-Shabaab armed group abducted more than 1,600 children with the primary objective of increasing their ranks by using boys and girls in combat and support roles.

6. Denial of humanitarian access to children

In conflicts around the world, armed forces and armed groups block humanitarian aid from reaching millions of people – many of them children – in desperate need of help. Warring parties often deny humanitarian actors access to those in need or prevent assistance from reaching civilian populations. Civilians are also denied aid when humanitarian workers are targeted and treated as threats.

In Syria, for example, the removal of medical kits and surgical supplies from aid convoys, restrictions on medical evacuations, and killing of medical personnel, mean that access to critical and lifesaving healthcare for many civilians is diminishing day by day.

Since 2010, documented incidents of denial of humanitarian access have increased by more than 1,500 per cent, according to a Save the Children analysis of UN figures.