Boko Haram child suicide bombings have surged 11-fold in West Africa over the last year, with children as young as 8, mostly girls, detonating bombs in schools and markets, a leading charity said on Tuesday.
The armed group's campaign of suicide bombings has crossed beyond Nigeria’s borders, with an increasing number of deadly attacks being carried out by children with explosives hidden under their clothes or in baskets.
"The use of children, especially girls, as so-called suicide bombers has become a defining and alarming feature of this conflict," said Laurent Duvillier, regional spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"It's basically turning the children against their own communities by strapping bombs around their bodies," he said.
A UNICEF report revealed that last year there were 44 child suicide bombings in West Africa, mostly in Cameroon and Nigeria, up from four in 2014.
Some young children probably do not know that they are carrying explosives, which are often detonated remotely, Duvillier said.
Boko Haram increased its attacks using children after a regional offensive drove the group from its strongholds in Nigeria.
As people do not usually see children as a threat, using them in suicide attacks has proven effective in increasing the number of casualties.
It is not clear how Boko Haram makes children carry out the attacks, but children who have been raped and exposed to abuse are more psychologically damaged and vulnerable, according to the US Army.
About 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram since 2014 for use as cooks, sex slaves, fighters and suicide bombers, Amnesty International reported.
It has been two years since the militants abducted about 270 Nigerian schoolgirls in Chibok, many of whom were forced to marry their captors.
UNICEF said that three-quarters of the suicide bombers have been girls, who are often thought less likely to arouse suspicion, although that may be changing now.
It also said that abducted boys are forced to attack their own families to demonstrate their loyalty to Boko Haram.
Although many children are released from captivity after the military retook territory from Boko Haram, they often face stigma and rejection.
UNICEF says that children are the main victims of the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict, making up the majority of the 2.3 million people displaced since mid-2013.
Those who are separated from their families by the conflict and are out of school are vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups, Duvillier said.
Almost 1 million Nigerian children are not receiving education as Boko Haram has destroyed more than 900 schools and killed more than 600 teachers, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
"Boko Haram is robbing an entire generation of children in northeast Nigeria of their education," Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.