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A Stolen Childhood and a Future to Repair: Vulnerability of Girls & Boys in Armed Conflict Exacerbated by COVID-19 Pandemic

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New York, 21 June 2021 - The year 2020 has been particularly somber for conflict-affected children with more than 19,300* boys and girls directly suffering one or more grave violations against them, highlights the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC), covering the year 2020. The overall number of grave violations remained alarmingly high at 26,425.

To make matters worse, the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic took an additional toll on children in situations of armed conflict and complicated the United Nations’ efforts to reach those most in need. The pandemic increased the vulnerability of children to abduction, recruitment and use, sexual violence and attacks on schools and hospitals, while isolation and measures put in place to combat the pandemic also complicated the work of United Nations child protection monitors and experts, as detailed in a study by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict published in May 2021.

“The wars of adults have taken away the childhood of millions of boys and girls again in 2020. This is completely devastating for them, but also for the entire communities they live in, and destroys chances for a sustainable peace. We can’t erase the past, but we can collectively work at re-building the future of these children, our own future; by putting the willpower, the efforts and the resources to end and prevent grave violations against children, and by supporting their sustainable reintegration and building a future free from conflict for all,” said the CAAC Special Representative, Virginia Gamba.

In 2020, the most prevalent violations were the recruitment and use, and killing and maiming of children, closely followed by the denial of humanitarian access and abduction of children. More than 8,400 children were killed or maimed by ongoing wars, with Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia showing the highest child casualty numbers. The recruitment and use of children persisted with close to 7,000 children affected in 2020, with most cases occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Syria, and Myanmar.

The violations of greatest exponential growth in 2020 were abduction, by a staggering 90%, and rape and other forms of sexual violence which rose by 70%. Furthermore, attacks on schools and hospitals remained excessively high, including serious attacks perpetrated against girls’ education and against health facilities and personnel. The military use of schools also saw an increase, particularly related to the pandemic and the temporary closure of schools, making them easy targets for military occupation and use.

In 2020, one out of four child victims of grave violations were girls. Girls were mostly affected by rape and other forms of sexual violence (98% of all victims were girls) followed by killing and maiming. “If boys and girls experience conflict differently and require interventions to better address their specific needs, what the data also showed is that conflict doesn’t differentiate based on gender,” emphasized Virginia Gamba.

The conflict situations where both boys and girls were the most affected by hostilities remained the same: Somalia, DRC, Afghanistan, and Syria; these countries represented almost 60% of all verified violations in 2020 affecting both sexes. “Also deeply concerning is that many violent attacks against schools had a specific objective of stopping girls from receiving an education.”

Progress for Conflict-Affected Boys and Girls

While engagement to end and prevent grave violations was challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, tangible progress in dialogues with parties to conflict nonetheless took place in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Syria. Overall, more than 35 new commitments or forms of engagement were undertaken by parties to conflict to better protect children in 2020, including two new action plans signed in Myanmar and in South Sudan.

Furthermore, over 12,643 children were released by armed groups and forces in 2020 following the United Nations’ engagement with parties to conflict. Many more children were further spared from recruitment through the implementation of age screening processes in situations where the United Nations has action plans with governments to stop recruitment and use of children.

This is a considerable feat considering that child protection capacities on the ground are overstretched and under-resourced. The pandemic has underscored that the dedicated child protection units in the field are crucial in monitoring violations against children, engaging with parties, advocating for the release of children, developing action plans and providing technical assistance to parties.

“Engagement with parties can be a complex task, but it is absolutely pivotal to effectively ensure better protection for children both now and in the long term. I commend the work of child protection actors on the ground for their dedicated work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in challenging environments. We must secure child protection resources and increase them if we aim to reach more children and prevent violations against them,” emphasized Virginia Gamba.

The Secretary-General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict covering the year 2020 is published at a time of extreme suffering for children given the many setbacks in democratic processes at the beginning of 2021 in some contexts, and the rise in violence between parties to conflict. “This is an opportunity to stop and reflect on the suffering we are causing our children, who are our future. We need to give children an alternative to violence and abuse: we need peace, respect for child rights and democracy. We need hope in good governance. We need to act to build a future where peace prevails. Please, give children that alternative,” pleaded Virginia Gamba.

Read the Summary of the Annual Report Publication

Read the Full Report

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  • The number of children includes those victims of the four individual violations: recruitment and use, killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence and abductions. It doesn’t include the number of children affected by incidents of attacks on schools and hospitals and the denial of humanitarian access.

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For additional information, please contact:

Fabienne Vinet, Communications Officer, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict +1-212-963-5986 (office) / +1-917-288-5791 (mobile) / vinet@un.org

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