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UN Agency Decries 'Shocking Scale' of Attacks on Children in Conflict Zones

"Children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools, and playgrounds."

child in school in Yemen

A student stands in the ruins of one of his former classrooms, which was destroyed in June 2015, at the Aal Okab school in Saada, Saada Governorate, Yemen, in April of 2017. (Photo: Giles Clark/UNOCHA/UNICEF)

In a report released Thursday, UNICEF decried the "shocking scale" of attacks on children in conflict zones worldwide throughout 2017, accusing those engaged in violent disputes of "blatantly disregarding international laws designed to protect the most vulnerable."

"Such brutality cannot be the new normal."
—Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF

"In conflicts around the world, children have become front-line targets, used as human shields, killed, maimed, and recruited to fight," UNICEF said in a statement.

"Millions more children are paying an indirect price for these conflicts, suffering from malnutrition, disease, and trauma as basic services—including access to food, water, sanitation, and health—are denied, damaged, or destroyed in the fighting, the statement continued. "Rape, forced marriage, abduction, and enslavement have become standard tactics in conflicts from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, to Nigeria, South Sudan, and Myanmar."

The report also detailed alarming findings from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Somalia, and Ukraine over the past year. "In the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo," the report notes, "violence has driven 850,000 children from their homes, while more than 200 health centers and 400 schools were attacked."

Meanwhile, in South Sudan and Somalia, thousands of children have been recruited to join armed forces, while in Nigeria and Cameroon, the terrorist group Boko Haram has forced more than 100 children to act as suicide bombers—nearly five times the number from 2016.

"Children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools, and playgrounds," said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF director of emergency programs. "As these attacks continue year after year, we cannot become numb. Such brutality cannot be the new normal."

In response to the findings, UNICEF called on all parties to the conflicts in the nations described to "abide by their obligations under international law to immediately end violations against children and the targeting of civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals," while also demanding that states with influence over such parties make greater efforts to protect children in these regions.

The report echoes remarks from UNICEF's representative for Yemen released earlier this week. Meritxell Relaño, the agency's representative, concluded that "2017 was a horrible year for the children of Yemen," pointing to the cholera epidemic, a growing potential for famine, and a blockade enforced by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition that cut off civilians from necessary food and medical aid.

Recounting a meeting with a Yemeni mother and her dying 7-year-old son, Relaño said: "He was like skin on bones. I asked why they had not come sooner and the mother told me that she could not afford to ride the bus to the hospital. The levels of poverty in the families [have] now reached levels that are unsustainable."

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