Nearly 200 million children are living in the world’s most lethal war zones, the highest number in over a decade, many of whom are already at risk of climate change and facing unprecedented levels of hunger. In addition, more than 330 million children are at risk of recruitment to armed groups and government forces worldwide – three times more than in 1990.

Tagreed (11 years old), was injured and lost one of her legs when she was hit by a missile in July 2019 in Saada, Yemen 

Save the Children’s sixth report examining conflict trends for children found that the number living amid lethal conflicts in 13 countries rose nearly 20% in 2020 from 162 million a year earlier – making it the second highest number on record, just behind 2008 at 208 million. The sharp increase in 2020 shows that a global pandemic and United Nations’ call for a global ceasefire were not enough to halt these wars.

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A global pandemic and UN call for a global ceasefire were not enough to halt the ongoing wars globally.

This spike was driven partly by outbreaks of violence in Mozambique, as well as ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, the DRC, Nigeria, and Yemen, which are already on the frontline of climate change’s worst impacts and coping with life-threatening hunger crises.

Recruitment of armed groups

The report also revealed that 337 million children were living near armed groups and government forces that recruit children, a threefold increase from three decades ago (99 million in 1990). The number of countries where children are recruited – and where more than half the world’s children (nearly 1.3 billion) live – also jumped to 39, its highest in 30 years.

According to the new analysis, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, the Philippines, and Iraq have the highest percentage of children living near an armed group or force that has recruited children, leaving them at greater risk of recruitment.

Poverty and not being able to attend school – factors that have only worsened with the pandemic – are among the reasons why children are more vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups and forces, where their duties can range from fighting on the frontline to manning checkpoints. Many are also drawn to such groups in search of a sense of belonging, protection from abuse, status, or revenge.

Millions of children have known nothing but war with appalling consequences for their mental health, ability to go to school, or access to life-saving services. This is a stain on the international community and cannot go on.

Inger Ashing CEO of Save the Children International

While girls only made up 15% of UN-reported cases of recruitment in 2020, they are often targeted to act as spies, to lay mines and improvised explosive devices, or to act as suicide bombers because they are less likely to draw attention. Their vulnerability, low status, and gender also makes them susceptible to widespread abuse.

Children who are used by armed groups and forces are at greater risk of injury, disability, chronic mental or physical illness, sexual violence, and death.

Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International, said: “It’s simply horrifying that in the shadow of COVID-19 and the UN’s call for a global ceasefire, more children than ever before are caught in the crosshairs of the deadliest war zones – where they’re already facing more droughts, floods, and hunger – and more likely to be injured, recruited or killed. Not even a global pandemic was enough to stop the most brutal wars and atrocities.”

We know we can tackle the greatest challenges of our time and achieve remarkable progress when we work together, like the recent development of COVID vaccines. We now have to do the same to protect children from the horrors of conflict.

Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International

Report: Stop the war on children - a crisis of recruitment pdf - 4,64 MB