The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that Islamist rebels are recruiting young children to fight in the volatile, oil-rich province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique.
UNICEF says it has received several reports of children being forcibly recruited by the Mozambican terrorist group al-Shabaab. It says that the group – not affiliated with the Somali insurgency of the same name – has allegedly taken boys and girls from their families and villages.
UNICEF noted that there is evidence of sexual violence against girls and forcing young girls to marry their abductors.
Human Rights Watch recently said that the boys, some of whom are as young as 12, are being trained in bases in Cabo Delgado and forced to fight alongside adults against government forces. .
UNICEF spokesman James Elder says there is no exact count of the number of children admitted, but it is believed to be in the thousands. They say some children have been rescued, but none have been released by their militants.
“The recruitment and use of children by armed groups destroys families and communities,” Elder said. “Children are exposed to incomparable levels of violence, they lose their families, they lose their security, they lose their ability to go to school. And, of course, the recruitment and use of children by international law. is a serious violation.”
The elder says that child soldiers have been recruited since al-Shabaab and other armed groups attacked Cabo Delgado in March. The United Nations reports that dozens of people were killed in the region and around 40,000 fled to safer areas.
Two weeks ago, Elder says, UNICEF signed an important memorandum of understanding with the Mozambican Defense Forces that outlined what government forces should do when confronted with children from armed groups.
“That’s why training is very, very important so that they know how to treat children as children and victims and then immediately get the support of organizations like UNICEF,” Elder said. “And it can be everything from help to psychosocial support. The early stages of support, whether in the form of an assistant, whether armed, for a child who is admitted is absolutely critical.”
International law states that any child associated with an armed group must be considered a child and a survivor of a violation. Elder says that children who have been associated with armed groups are double victims and should be treated as such.