By Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
A year ago, the world woke up to news of the horrific abduction by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, better known as Boko Haram* of 276 school girls in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. Video quickly surfaced, showing the girls sitting outside in a group and looking terrorized.
The world responded with outrage. Bring Back our Girls quickly became a movement and rightly so. How can we tolerate to see our children kidnapped because they are trying to get an education, or because they are easy prey?
In the past year, Boko Haram’s violence intensified. When I visited Nigeria’s northeast in January, close to one million people had fled their homes in search of safety. I spoke to mothers who didn’t know where their children were. The desperation caused by the armed group’s brutal tactics was palpable.
Boko Haram continued its attacks against schools and destroyed or damaged more than 300 of them. The education system, already weak in the country’s northeast, has been profoundly disrupted.
Hundreds of children have been killed, injured or abducted and the UN received an increasing number of reports indicating that children are recruited and used by Boko Haram. The armed group has used children as human shields to protect some of its members. In the most extreme cases, they have used children, mostly girls, as suicide bombers.
The group’s activities and impact now extends beyond Nigeria’s borders. Chad, Niger and Cameroon are now hosting thousands of Nigerian refugees and a regional response has been set up to address the threat posed by the group.
My Office had been monitoring and gathering information about Boko Haram for several months before the abduction of the Chibok girls crystallized in everyone’s mind the urgency to act.
Last year, the Secretary-General named the group in its annual report on children and armed conflict for killing and maiming children and attacks against schools and hospitals. The listing triggered the establishment of tools and mechanisms mandated by the Security Council to collect and verify information on violations against children. The listing also allows the UN to better respond, improve the protection of children and also to promote accountability.
The United Nations continue their advocacy with Nigerian authorities and support all efforts that could lead to the children’s release.
Mass abductions of children: a new trend in conflict
In the past year or so, we have observed that the mass abduction of children is becoming a tactic of war, used mostly by armed groups espousing extremist ideologies and operating in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. Abductions are used as a way to terrorize or target ethnic or religious communities.
While the fate of the girls abducted in Chibok is on everyone’s mind, we cannot forget that in Iraq and Syria, ISIL abducted over one thousand boys and girls. And these are the cases reported and verified by the UN. We know there are more children today who are waiting for our help.
We also know that this increase in the frequency and scale of abductions is a call for all of us to do more. Last month, during a Security Council open debate on children and armed conflict, several Member States explicitly called for a resolution that would request the Secretary-General to name parties to conflict who abduct children.
I support their call because I am convinced the time has come to make full use of the tools at our disposal to protect child victims of abductions. We need timely, reliable information to know what is happening on the ground, to respond and ultimately better protect children.
* Boko Haram’s real name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), or the Sunni Community for the propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad