Boko Haram: soaring numbers of children used in suicide attacks, says Unicef

Across north-east Nigeria and neighbouring countries, 44 children were used in suicide attacks in 2015, three-quarters of them girls

The number of children used in suicide attacks by Boko Haram has soared 11-fold over the past year, with more than three-quarters of bombings now carried out by girls, according to a Unicef report, Beyond Chibok (pdf).

Data from the UN children’s agency shows that 44 children were used in suicide attacks in north-east Nigeria and neighbouring countries in 2015, compared with four the previous year.

Between January 2014 and February 2016, there were 40 suicide attacks involving one child or more: 21 in Cameroon; 17 in Nigeria, and two in Chad.

The figures, released to mark the second anniversary of the abduction of more than 200 girls from the Nigerian town of Chibok, show that children now account for nearly a fifth of all suicide bombers in Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad.

Even those who escape the group’s clutches find themselves shunned and stigmatised when they return home. One woman in her 20s went back to the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri last month after being freed by soldiers. According to Associated Press, when the woman told her mother that she had been trained as a suicide bomber, the mother grew so fearful that she turned her daughter over to the military.

Last year, children were used in half the attacks in Cameroon, one in eight in Chad, and one in seven in Nigeria. Girls accounted for three-quarters of child suicide bombers in 2015.

“Over the past year, the estimated number of bomb attacks in north-east Nigeria and neighbouring countries has increased sharply,” says the report.

“The proportion of attacks involving boys and girls is also on the rise, with children as young as eight. The use of children, especially girls, as suicide bombers has become one of the defining and alarming features of the conflict.”

Unicef said 2015 had seen not only an increase in the overall number of suicide bombings but also the spread of the tactic beyond Nigeria’s borders for the first time.

Between the end of 2014 and the end of last year, the number of such attacks rose from 32 to 151. In 2015, 89 of these attacks were carried out in Nigeria, 39 in Cameroon, 16 in Chad and seven in Niger.

Manuel Fontaine, Unicef regional director for west and central Africa, said children used in suicide bombings should not be seen as willing combatants. “Let us be clear: these children are victims, not perpetrators,” he said.

“Deceiving children and forcing them to carry out deadly acts has been one of the most horrific aspects of the violence in Nigeria and neighbouring countries.”

Fontaine said Boko Haram’s use of children was having a corrosive social effect as communities began to view them as threats, or shunned those who had been abused.

Research from Unicef and International Alert suggests that women and girls who have been subjected to sexual violence by the group face discrimination and rejection by their families and communities when they return home.

“This suspicion towards children can have destructive consequences,” said Fontaine. “How can a community rebuild itself when it is casting out its own sisters, daughters and mothers?”

Khadija, a 17-year-old girl from Cameroon, was kidnapped by Boko Haram when she crossed the border to visit her mother in the Nigerian town of Banki. After being forcibly “married” to a Boko Haram fighter and giving birth to a son, she managed to escape. But when she arrived at a displacement camp, she was attacked.

“Some women would beat me, they would chase me away,” she told Unicef. “They said, ‘You are a Boko Haram wife. Don’t come near us!’. If I used their washing basin to clean, they would say, ‘You are a Boko Haram wife! Don’t touch our basin.’ Everywhere I went, they would abuse me and call me a Boko Haram wife.”

Boko Haram’s militant Islamic insurgency has forced more than 2.3 million people to flee their homes since May 2013 (pdf).

Across the four countries mentioned in the report, almost 1.3 million children have been displaced, about 1,800 schools are closed because they have been damaged, looted, burned down or are being used as shelters by displaced people, and more than 5,000 children are unaccompanied or have been separated from their parents.

Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, has claimed that the military has forced Boko Haram out of all towns and is isolating the group. But the violence that has plagued the country in recent years continues unabated. Last month, at least 24 people were killed in an attack on a mosque in Maiduguri, the location of the government’s command centre for its campaign.

Despite the scale of the resultant humanitarian emergency, which Unicef describes as “one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa”, the international response has been sluggish. This year, the agency has only 11% of the $97m (£68m) it needs to fund its humanitarian response in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.


Sam Jones

The GuardianTramp

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