GENEVA - Violence and human rights violations against children in Mali are skyrocketing, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.
Never entirely stable since a 2012 coup, Mali is now experiencing new unrest marked by food shortages and inter-communal clashes.
Children in Mali are among the biggest victims of the havoc being perpetrated by armed groups inside the beleaguered country, says UNICEF.
The U.N. agency says more than 150 children were killed in conflict in the first half of this year, compared with 77 in all of 2018. It says three times as many children were injured in attacks this year than last.
UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado says some children are being used as child soldiers.
"The recruitment and use of children in armed groups has doubled, with 99 cases in 2019, against 47 over the same period in 2018," said Mercado. "These are figures the United Nations has verified, and the true figures are without doubt higher."
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U.N. agencies report widespread human rights violations in Mali's central regions, including summary executions, disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests.
Mercado says children are unable to access basic services because of the violence. More than 70,000 children have not received a vaccine that prevents meningitis and pneumonia, among other diseases, and more than a quarter-million are losing out on education because of closed schools, mostly in the central Mopti region.
She tells VOA that UNICEF is doing what it can to help and to protect the children of Mali. But she says humanitarian workers have limited access to many areas of the country because of the fighting.
"We take every opportunity, every lull in the fighting, every chance we can to reach children in need ... In order to reach children in need systematically, we need for the security and situation to improve," said Mercado. "We need for the fighting to stop."
Mercado says many children are separated from their families, and suffer from sexual abuse and psychological trauma. She says UNICEF tries to help by providing medical and psychosocial care to tens of thousands of conflict-affected boys and girls.