The U.N. Children’s Fund reports that Islamist insurgents are recruiting young children to fight in northern Mozambique’s volatile, oil-rich province of Cabo Delgado.
UNICEF says it has received numerous reports of children being forcefully recruited by the Mozambican militant group al-Shabab. It says the group — not affiliated with the Somali insurgency of the same name — has reportedly taken boys and girls from their families and villages.
UNICEF notes there is evidence of sexual violence against girls and of young girls being forced into marriage with their abductors.
Human Rights Watch recently said the boys, some as young as 12, are being trained in bases across Cabo Delgado and forced to fight alongside adults against government forces.
UNICEF spokesman James Elder says there is no accurate count of the number of children that have been recruited, but it is believed to be in the thousands. He says some of the children have been rescued, but none have been released by their militant captors.
“The recruitment and use of children by armed groups destroys families and communities,” Elder said. “Children are exposed to incomprehensible levels of violence, they lose their families, they lose their safety, they lose their ability to go to school. And, of course, the recruitment and use of children is a grave violation of international law.”
Elder says the recruitment of child soldiers has been going on since al-Shabab and other armed groups attacked Cabo Delgado in March. The United Nations reports dozens of people were killed and nearly 40,000 people fled to safer areas in the region.
Two weeks ago, Elder says, UNICEF signed an important Memorandum of Understanding with the Mozambican defense forces which spelled out what government forces should do when they encounter children with armed groups.
“So that training is very, very important so that they know to treat children as children and as victims and then immediately get the support of organizations like UNICEF,” Elder said. “And that can be everything from help to psychosocial support. Those early stages of support for a child who is being recruited, whether as a helper, whether as someone armed, are absolutely critical.”
International law states any child associated with an armed group is to be considered a child and a survivor of violations. Elder says children who have been associated with armed groups are double victims and must be treated as such.