The heroes trying to keep children out of armed conflict in West and Central Africa

UNICEF Child Protection Specialists share their experiences on the ground

Up-close portrait of a man as he is speaking to the camera
17 July 2022

“It really gives you a lot of joy when you can make a change for a child. I feel it’s like a sacred task,” says Therese Mansan, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in Niger.

Therese is one of the UNICEF child protection experts in West and Central Africa working on the frontlines to monitor grave violations of child rights in armed conflict. Their work involves verifying reports of violations and seeking to support children trapped in conflict zones.

“Reporting these grave violations allows different countries to prevent these violations taking place against children,” says Patrice Kosmate from the UNICEF Chad team. “Frequently we have to carry out verifications to see if the information we have received is true or false. This means we have to be on the ground. But there are lots of challenges.”

Each year the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict presents a report on verified grave violations that are committed by parties to a conflict in a certain number of countries, to the United Nations General Assembly. The reporting covers six grave violations: killing and maiming of children; recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups; rape and other forms of sexual violence committed against children; attacks against schools or hospitals; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access

“It’s always challenging working with armed groups,” says UNICEF Child Protection Manager, Samuel Sesay, who is based in Maiduguri, Nigeria. “It is part of our role to make sure that that we tell them about child rights. A child is a child. A child should not be involved in war. It is adults that create war not children. Children should be left to live as children.”

The situation of children in armed conflict remains a key concern across West and Central Africa. Over the past few years, the number of conflicts, both new and protracted, have increased with devastating consequences on children. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of grave violations verified by the United Nations in the region has increased by 50 per cent.

It takes time to help children from these situations. For an armed group to be engaged, it takes time. For a government to make changes to their policies, it takes time.

Therese Mansan

“Unfortunately, some children are in areas where armed groups are in control, so they can be deprived of their rights. It’s important to go to these regions, dialogue with armed groups, advocate for access, for child rights, to limit violations as much as possible, and ensure as many as possible can be supported.”

Through patience and bravery, advances have been made. Therese, formerly working in the Central African Republic, shares how she convinced armed groups to release a number of boys and girls from their group.

“We made a breakthrough, and these children have been able to enjoy their rights again through our support. There have really been moments that were quite tense, but you just need to believe that change can happen.”

Those breakthroughs give hope to continue the work to reach every child in armed conflict.

“I’m a parent also so I know when children are living as children,” says Samuel, “so when I see a family that has lost a child for five years being united…you see the way they are crying, the way they have missed each other. It satisfies me a lot.”