The number of child suicide bombers used by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad has increased 10 times over the past one year, according to the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef). In 2014, the militant Islamist group used four children for the attacks, but it rose to 44 by 2015, including some in 2016.
Of all the children used as suicide attackers by Boko Haram, over 75 percent were girls, according to the Unicef press release.
"Let us be clear: these children are victims, not perpetrators. 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," Unicef Regional Director for West and Central Africa Manuel Fontaine said.
The Unicef release cited a report titled "Beyond Chibok," which was released two years after Boko Haram abducted 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. Between January 2014 and February 2016, a total of 21 suicide attacks were carried out in Cameroon by children, 17 in Nigeria and two in Chad, the report said.
In total, there have been 151 suicide bombings, including 89 in Nigeria, 39 in Cameroon, 16 in Chad and seven in Niger last year.
"The proportion of attacks involving boys and girls is also on the rise, with children as young as eight. The use of children, especially girls, as suicide bombers has become one of the defining and alarming features of the conflict," the Guardian cited the report.
The use of children as suicide attackers has resulted in "fear and suspicion" among the people of the four countries. The Unicef and International Alert researches have suggested that children who have either been released by Boko Haram or escaped from its captivity are seen as "potential security threats."
Also, children born out of incidents of sexual violence face "discrimination in their villages, host communities, and in camps for internally displaced persons."
"As 'suicide' attacks involving children become commonplace, some communities are starting to see children as threats to their safety. 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?" Fontaine asked.
Close to 1.3 million children have been displaced, as many as 5,000 children separated from their parents and about 1,800 schools have been closed since Boko Haram began attacks in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.