Children in West and Central Africa

UNICEF in the region

Polio immunization

Child and Maternal Health


HIV/AIDS in the region


Water and sanitation

Child protection


Child protection

Background and Context

Children in West and Central Africa are facing a wide range of protection risks, including child labour and sexual exploitation, sexual abuse and domestic violence, discrimination and rejection, for example children accused of witchcraft, children with disabilities, and children affected by HIV and AIDS. Widespread poverty, chronic conflict, as well as gender and generation relations, and certain cultural beliefs are major root causes for violence, exploitation and abuse of children. Systems for the social and legal protection of children are generally weak, under-resourced and poorly coordinated. Traditionally, families and communities have been the most important sources of support and protection for vulnerable children. However, urbanisation, migration and other sources of social change are putting pressures on family networks and traditional safety nets in addition to larger development problems faced by the region.

Poverty: Close to half of the population of the region lives below the poverty line and two thirds of the countries in the region are classified as “weak” on the Human Development Index. Forty percent of girls and thirty percent of boys are not in school and literacy rates in Sahelian countries are below those of coastal West and Central Africa. Low education levels are a source of vulnerability for children. They limit their economic opportunities and deprive them from access to information about sources of support and protection.

Conflict and instability continue to affect several countries in the region. Others are emerging from years of civil war or are in a situation of chronic political instability that risks turning into open and sustained conflict. Civil wars are leading to forced population movements, the separation of children from their families, recruitment of children into armed groups and a dramatic increase of sexual violence, especially against women and girls.

Violence against children takes many different forms in the region, including domestic violence, FGM/C, early marriage and other forms of violence based on cultural beliefs and gender norms, violence in institutions, particularly in schools, and exploitation through child labour and domestic work. Sexual violence against children is widespread and particularly prevalent at home, in schools or at a child’s place of work. Rates of gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict areas are alarming.

Social change: The region is urbanising rapidly and already half of the region’s population is living in towns and cities. This is having a range of effects on the protection of children. Urbanisation is leading to pressures on basic social services which are not able to cope with the demands of the fast increasing population. Other effects of urbanisation include the expansion of slums, family breakdown, and a general increase in the vulnerability of children, such as children living and working in the street, sexual exploitation and juvenile delinquency. Urbanisation and economic transformation put pressures on extended families and are leading to an increase in nuclear and single-parent families, as well as the emergence of “contract” families. Migration in West and Central Africa has long historic roots. The migration of children has to be understood within a broader context of cultural, religious and ethnic relations, economic necessity and social mobility.

Cultural context: Family solidarity is coming under increased pressures as a result of demographic and economic changes. The cultural context of West and Central Africa is characterised by the widespread practice of “confiage” – informal adoption and placement of children in extended families (80% of urban households in Guinea host children from their extended family), and the early involvement of children in productive activities as a form of socialisation. Within the changing social and economic context, these two cultural practices constitute a source of vulnerability for children. The circulation of children now takes place in a wider space where communal responsibilities for child protection are weakened and where the interests of the child is not always respected. The educational value of work is being replaced by economic considerations driven by survival strategies.

Weak child protection systems: Against a background where social and economic protection has traditionally been the responsibility of families and communities, formal child protection systems remain weak or non-existent for most children in the region. Government and non-governmental structures are characterised by weak capacities and resources, lack of coordination and inadequate monitoring mechanisms. Community protection mechanisms generally lack effectiveness and are not linked to formal referral services. The implementation and enforcement of existing laws, policies and national plans remains weak and impunity is a major constraint to the effective persecution of crimes perpetrated against children. Child protection data are patchy and often unreliable and there is a general lack of evidence about child protection approaches that have been proven to work. Limited understanding of children’s participation rights hinders protection of children.

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Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake on violence involving children in conflicts
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