One out of every five Boko Haram suicide bombings in the last two years was carried out by a child, and the number has only increased as the West African militant group continues to inflict violence in Nigeria and surrounding countries.
The number of child suicide bombers being used by the Islamist extremists, who have waged an insurgency in Nigeria for nearly a decade, rose from four to 44 between 2014 and 2015, according to figures released Tuesday by the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF).
Nearly two years after the militants captured more than 200 girls from a school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, young girls have become the bomber of choice for the militants, making up 75 percent of the group's assailants under 18.
Suicide attacks in general have become increasingly frequent in Borno state, while spreading across the border into neighboring countries. Cameroon saw the highest portion of child suicide attackers with 50 percent of bombings carried out by children in 2015, compared to one out of every eight in Chad and one out every seven in Nigeria.
"Let us be clear: these children are victims, not perpetrators," Manuel Fontaine, Unicef's West and Central Africa regional director, said in a statement. "Deceiving children and forcing them to carry out deadly acts has been one of the most horrific aspects of the violence in Nigeria and in neighbouring countries."
Amid a ramped up military campaign that began last year, Nigeria's government has claimed several victories against Boko Haram. The government said it has regained territory, particularly in the northeast that was previously captured by the group. Meanwhile, a regional joint force with neighboring countries has also worked to root out the militants.
While Boko Haram has been pushed from some of its strongholds, this hasn't succeeded in halting the violence. Instead, the group has shifted their tactics towards a more guerrilla-style campaign, with the number of suicide attacks growing from 32 in 2014 to a total of 151 in 2015.
The militants have been active already this year, waging brutal attacks in northern Nigeria targeting refugee camps and villages. More than 60 people died at the end of January in an Boko Haram-led assault on the village of Dalori that involved suicide bombings, firing at villagers, and setting fire to houses, and left more than 60 people dead. Weeks later a twin suicide bombing carried out by two young women in a displacement camp killed 60 people.
There are now more than 2.2 million displaced people in the country, with 1.6 million residing in Maiduguri, which has borne the brunt of the insurgency. More than 500,000 children were forced from their homes in 2015 alone, and a total of 1.3 million are currently displaced.
As the number of children involved in attacks increases and becomes more common, Unicef expressed concern regarding communities viewing kids as security threats. This same stigma is also targeted at victims of sexual assault and children born as a result of rape, according to the UN agency.
"As 'suicide' attacks involving children become commonplace, some communities are starting to see children as threats to their safety," said Fontaine. "This suspicion towards children can have destructive consequences; how can a community rebuild itself when it is casting out its own sisters, daughters and mothers?"
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