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UNICEF Report Finds Sharp Rise In Boko Haram's Use Of Child Bombers

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Increasingly, the militant group Boko Haram is turning to children to wage destruction as it battles to make northern Nigeria an Islamic state. In a new report on the terrorist organization, UNICEF says the number of children, especially girls, used in suicide bombings has risen sharply in the past year.

Laurent Duvillier is the chief spokesman for west and central Africa for UNICEF, and he helped compile the report. He joins us now from Dakar in Senegal. Laurent Duvillier, welcome to the program.

LAURENT DUVILLIER: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And why are children being used in this new way by Boko Haram?

DUVILLIER: Well, we have seen a slight shift in the tactics being used by Boko Haram, and this is probably the most horrific and horrendous way they can actually try to get closer to the community. Really, the idea of Boko Haram is to hit the community in its heart, where it hurts.

When you see an 8-year-old girl, who would imagine that she would carry an explosive device and that she would blow herself up? Nobody would imagine that. But over the past two years, let's say, we have seen a rising number of children involved in the bombing attacks not only in Nigeria, but also in the neighboring countries.

SIEGEL: And is the use of girls primarily - is that because Boko Haram has abducted far more girls than boys, or is it because girls would be even less threatening to their neighbors if they were wired with a bomb?

DUVILLIER: It's probably because the more you see bombing attacks involving girls and women, the more it's creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion towards children. Those girls and women have been victims three times - the day they were abducted, during their captivity, when they were enslaved and raped repeatedly and systematically, but then, more surprisingly, at the start of the liberation.

You would think that this would be the end of the nightmare. It is not because when they return home, their own family is rejecting them and casting them out.

SIEGEL: What are the actual numbers here? How many such attacks have there been? And of that, how many have been carried out - or have used girls?

DUVILLIER: Well, probably we have to look at different figures. If we look at the number of children in 2014, there were only four bombing attacks being carried out, all of them in Nigeria. Last year, in 2015, there were 44 across three countries. So basically - let me recap this - out of all the suicide bombers, one out of five is a child. But out of the children, 75 percent of them are girls.

SIEGEL: Boko Haram must be sowing the ultimate mistrust in the communities that these kids then wander back to with an explosive device. That is, can you trust a grade school girl? And if the answer is no, that must do great damage to the social fabric of that community.

DUVILLIER: Absolutely. And that's the damaging long-term impact that we see. And this is exactly the way we are approaching the parents and the community leaders. We tell them, if you cast your own children out, then Boko Haram would have won the war because really, they would have led to the destruction of the community.

SIEGEL: Laurent Duvillier of UNICEF in Dakar, Senegal, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

DUVILLIER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.