UNICEF: Boko Haram’s use of children for bomb attacks triples

People in Gambaru, Nigeria, stand outside burnt houses following an attack by Boko Haram in May 2014. (AP Photo/Jossy Ola, File)

Boko Haram is increasingly using children in suicide attacks in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The number of child bombers tripled in the first quarter of this year to 27 as compared to the same period last year, according to UNICEF.

“It is an insurgency built on the backs of the children,” Patrick Rose, UNICEF crisis communications specialist for west and central Africa, told Humanosphere. “Boko Haram is in a more desperate state than they were in six months ago. In that desperate state, they are grasping for what resources they have and one of those are children.”

The group gained worldwide attention when it kidnapped more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. While one of the largest single abductions, the incident was a part of a broad pattern of capturing children. Boko Haram uses children to cook, clean and move arms. Systematic abductions are carried out to keep the group in operation.

Some children were used to carry out bombings, but the numbers were relatively small compared to the overall attacks carried out by the group. That is changing. The 27 children used in attacks in 2017 are nearly a quarter of the 117 children deployed by Boko Haram since 2014. UNICEF calls the sudden increase “alarming” in a new report.

“These children are victims, not perpetrators,” Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s regional director for west and central Africa, said in a statement. “Forcing or deceiving them into committing such horrific acts is reprehensible.”

It fuels a crisis in the Lake Chad region where more than 2 million people are displaced from their homes. As a result, more than 7 million people in the four countries attacked by Boko Haram are at risk of hunger, of which 50,000 face famine. People are scared to go to markets because they fear attacks carried out by children, according to interviews by UNICEF.

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“Boko Haram is not some distant force hiding in the forest, they have informants and people in towns,” said Rose.

The agency is often able to work with militant groups and communicate information about protecting children. That has not been the case with Boko Haram. Rose said UNICEF does not have “a credible kind of channel” to the group. The report is a way to tell the international community that children are being mistreated and targeted as a part of Boko Haram’s campaign.

It shares the story of Dada, a girl abducted by Boko Haram when she was 12 years old. Members of the group attacked her village, capturing Dada and her sister. She was taken with other children to live with the group. While there, she witnessed the brutal murder of a pregnant girl and was forced to marry an 18-year-old fighter. Dada was raped repeatedly by her ‘husband,’ and became pregnant. Eventually she escaped.

“Within this madness of this crisis, you have this group of children who experienced extreme horror,” said Rose. “We are calling attention to the world that this group of children requires extra care and an additional layer of empathy.”

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Children who escape Boko Haram are often jailed by local authorities. Nearly 1,500 children were “detained or deprived of their liberty” last year, according to UNICEF. Roughly two-thirds were released. When children are jailed, officials tend to forget of them as victims, and they fail to help the children recover from the trauma of their experiences as captives.

The term ‘child soldier’ is also problematic, according to the report, instead suggested that captured children be referred to as: children associated with armed forces or armed groups.

“Child soldiers has a very specific media image,” Rose said. “The truth is that these children were in captivity.”

The success of a counter-insurgency led by the Nigerian military is diminishing the impact of Boko Haram as well as contributing to the use of new tactics. UNICEF wants to call attention to the problem so that it can focus on the work it is already doing, such as reaching more than 312,000 children with psycho-social support and reuniting 800 children with their families, last year.

A lack of funding hampers the ability of humanitarian groups to support the millions of people affected by Boko Haram.

“How do you reach 100 percent of the children with only 40 percent of funding?” asked Rose. “The answer is: on a shoestring with limited resources and by not reaching some children in need.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.