2.3 million children in need of protection in the Central Sahel region in 2020, a more than 80 per cent increase in one year

Existing child protection crisis worsens amid COVID-19

21 May 2020
Children sitting outside together

BAMAKO/DAKAR/NIAMEY/OUAGADOUGOU, 22 May 2020 – Growing violence and insecurity are threatening the care and protection of approximately 2.3 million children in need of protection assistance in 2020 in the Central Sahel region – across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – up from almost 1.2 million children in 2019. At the same time, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are among the countries most affected by COVID-19 in Africa. As the pandemic spreads across the region, violence against children continues to rise.

In Burkina Faso, the number of children in need of protection assistance has increased more than ten-fold from 35,800 children in 2019 to 368,000 in 2020. In Mali, over one million children face protection issues this year, twice as many as compared to last year. Whereas, over 867,000 children in Niger need protection assistance in 2020, 200,000 more than in 2019.

“The COVID-19 pandemic adds further risks to the rights and safety of millions of children already trapped in one or more humanitarian crises in the Central Sahel region,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “In a context of high levels of insecurity, children have been victims of abuse and violence, sexual or economic exploitation, trafficking, child marriage, and many have been forcibly separated from their families or recruited into armed groups.”

COVID-19 is making the critical situation for children in the Central Sahel – particularly girls, displaced children and those living in the street – even worse. Schools have been closed across all three countries to limit the spread of the coronavirus, affecting the education of approximately 12 million children temporarily out of school.  Prior to COVID-19, over 8 million children, 6-14 years were already out of school in the region. When children are not in school, they are at greater risk of recruitment by armed groups, sexual and gender-based violence, child labour and other forms of exploitation and abuse.  

In Burkina Faso, there have been 34 security incidents in March alone, killing 139 civilians, including four children, more than in January and February. Insecurity has led to the displacement of more than 838,000 persons, 61 per cent of whom are children, and the vast majority accommodated in host families or on displacement sites, lacking adequate access to clean water, hygiene and basic sanitation, which are fertile grounds for the transmission of the coronavirus.  

Similarly, the humanitarian situation in Mali remains extremely fragile and complex. In 2019, 745 grave violations against children were preliminarily recorded by the United Nations, including recruitment by armed groups, killing, maiming, rape and other sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, abductions and denial of access to humanitarian services – the highest number recorded since 2017. As of March, 228 incidents of grave violations against children were preliminarily reported for 2020. A sharp increase in forced displacement was also recorded, with more than 137,000 children currently displaced in Mali.

In Niger, COVID-19 containment measures have rendered specific vulnerable groups such as children living in the street or children attending koranic schools even more at risk. Approximately 7,400 Almajiri* children were returned from Nigeria to Niger due to the closures of koranic schools, and 375 unaccompanied migrant children (including 107 girls) were repatriated from Libya and Algeria between January and April. An additional 7,015 talibé* children were identified as being vulnerable and in need of support in Niamey, the hotbed of the pandemic in Niger. There, due to COVID-19 economic and physical restrictions and impact on household income and security, gender-based violence has become a worrying trend with a significant increase in March, and more children victims.

“Actions taken to contain the spread of the coronavirus have slowed down the delivery of humanitarian assistance and social services for children’s care and protection in the Central Sahel. Meanwhile, the insecurity has not stopped, and children continue to pay a high price,” said Ms. Poirier. “Now more than ever is the time for global solidarity. At the same time that governments and humanitarian partners work together to protect children from the health impact of COVID-19, we must also continue to protect the most vulnerable children from violence, exploitation and abuse, making our programmes ‘COVID-proof’.”

UNICEF calls on governments to invest in child protection services and social welfare workforce as essential pillars of the COVID-19 response, and to strengthen national protection systems, referral mechanisms for gender-based violence, and the provision of psychosocial support – especially for children in conflict-affected contexts.  Together with partners, UNICEF works to ensure the continuation of child protection services, for example by supporting countries establish safe, accessible channels to report on violence, neglect and abuse against children, as well as inform children, youth and their communities on their rights and available protection measures.

In Burkina Faso, UNICEF trained young people answers questions about COVID-19 sent by other young people via SMS -- with the support of health experts – using a chatbot platform. In Mali, UNICEF partnered with civil society organizations to provide child protection services including psychosocial support and alternative care to children affected by COVID-19 or exposed to high risk of contamination. In Niger, UNICEF worked with the Government in identifying street children and itinerant talibés and supporting their return and reintegration in their communities.

UNICEF has increased its appeal for children in the Central Sahel region to US $ 268 million to provide relief to COVID-19 affected and at-risk populations while continuing to assist children and their families with protection, education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation services. As of April 2020, the response plans remain 76 per cent underfunded in Burkina Faso, 76 per cent in Mali, and 71 per cent in Niger.





*Almajiri or talibé children refer to children who attend Koranic schools.

A few more facts:

  • 5.3 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance in the Central Sahel in 2020 (about 1.3 million in Burkina Faso, 2.4 million in Mali and 1.6 million in Niger), and over 900,000 children (including internally displaced and refugee) have been displaced because of armed conflict and violence.
  • In Burkina Faso, prior to schools closing because of COVID-19, 2,512 schools were closed or non-operational due to insecurity, depriving 349,909 children of their rights to education and affecting 11,219 teachers. In the conflict-affected regions of the country, 275 health centres have been closed or operate at reduced capacity, impeding access to health and nutrition services for more than 1.6 million people.
  • As of March, in Mali, 1,261 schools were closed or non-functional affecting 378,300 children and representing 14 per cent of the total number of schools in the conflict affected zones. With the COVID-19 outbreak, all schools have been closed leaving approximately 3.8 million without access to education.

In Niger, attacks on civilians by non-state armed groups and military operations have been on the rise, which led to the forced displacement of 51,515 people across the country between December and April alone, including refugees and returnees who have fled violence in neighbouring Nigeria and Burkina Faso. The most affected regions of Diffa, Maradi, Tahoua and Tillabéri all registered cases of people infected by the coronavirus.

Media contacts

Diane Yameogo
UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Office
Tel: +221 77 332 4326
Hadrien Bonnaud
Chief of Communication
UNICEF Burkina Faso
Tel: +226 66 93 31 32

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