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Surviving Boko Haram: Why children under five matter

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•Understanding the effect of conflict on children is crucial in mitigating a more severe humanitarian disaster.

Uyo Yenwong-Fai

There is a dearth of accurate health and mortality information coming out of those areas of Nigeria and Cameroon most affected by Boko Haram. This has led to gaps in understanding the full correlation between armed conflict and the health of children between birth and five years old. Efforts should be redoubled to understand and address the health and development needs of children under five in order to mitigate this humanitarian crisis and strive for better early childhood development outcomes. 

Key findings

•Malnutrition and exposure to physical and psychological illnesses as a result of the armed conflict have affected children under five in Nigeria and Cameroon.

•Insecurity, the inaccessibility of conflict-affected areas and insufficient information coordination have hampered efforts to fully understand the impact of the Boko Haram insurgency on children and respond effectively.

•Understanding the full effect of the conflict on this subset of children is crucial in mitigating a more severe humanitarian disaster and in warding off the damaging developmental outcomes linked to armed conflict.

•There is a broad disconnect between efforts to promote the health and development of children under five and those to counter terrorism in both countries, with some counter-terrorism practices sidelining or undermining child development.

•Creating a better understanding of under-five health in the affected areas in both countries involves conducting research to understand the nuances of the conflict’s impact. It also involves deepening trilateral partnerships between community-based organisations, government and humanitarian donors, and continuing to close the security-development divide in responding to the threat.


•Donors and the governments of Cameroon
and Nigeria should fund studies that examine in detail the health, and the impact of the Boko Haram insurgency on the health, of children under five in the affected areas.

•The Nigerian and Cameroonian governments and developmental partners should allocate more money to addressing the full spectrum of the health-related impacts of the insurgency on children under five.

•Donors and humanitarian actors should involve and empower knowledgeable local actors to provide more insight into the numbers and health status of children under five among refugee and internally displaced populations in host communities to allow for a more effective response.

•Donors, humanitarian actors and the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria should use under-five health determinations from SMART assessments to help with developmental projections and planning.

•Nigeria and Cameroon’s criminal justice systems should uphold the rights and developmental needs of children in the context of counter-terrorism operations. They should ensure that children have suitable holding facilities, are not subjected to extended detention or separation from their families, and that their nutritional and health needs are cared for when their families are being questioned.

•The security forces in Cameroon and Nigeria should continue to accompany health workers in Boko Haram-affected areas to allow for comprehensive assessments of under-five health and relevant interventions.

•Humanitarian actors working in north-
east Nigeria and northern Cameroon should partner with local community non-
governmental organisations to implement sensitisation campaigns on the importance of immunisations. They should also stress the need to register births and deaths as an important way to track under-five health, morbidity and mortality.

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Yenwong-Fai joined the Transnational Threats and International Crime Programme as researcher in 2012. Her work focuses on counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism. She has worked on the involvement of youth, women and children in violent extremism and reintegration in Africa, among other issues. She holds a Master’s degree in international relations from the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Credits|This policy brief is funded by the government of Norway. The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union and the governments of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the USA.

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