About 170 million children live in conflict zones across Africa - equivalent to one in every four African children - the highest absolute number of any region in the world, according to a report by Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation.
The report, released Thursday, noted that while fewer children are living in conflict-affected areas, those who do run the highest risk of falling victim to serious violence since records began.
"Successive generations of children across the continent have grown up knowing nothing other than conflict, including in the three West and Central Africa countries who are included in the list of the top ten worst conflict-affected countries to be a child - the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Nigeria," it stated.
According to available data, in conflict situations, girls were far more likely to be raped or fall victim to other forms of sexual abuse than boys - 87 per cent of all verified cases involved girls, while 1.5 per cent of the sexual violence targeted boys. In 11 per cent of the cases the sex of the victim was not recorded.
The report quoted an eight-year-old victim of sexual abuse from the DRC narrating her experience.
"It was a Thursday night, while I was playing with my friends, a group of four men emerged from the mountains," the child, from the region of North Kivu, said.
"One of them kidnapped me and drove into the field, and there he forced me to sleep with him. After doing what he wanted, he left. I was left alone in the field. I felt very bad. I couldn't stand myself anymore. A gentleman who was passing by found me and brought me home."
According to the report, over 10,200 schools are closed across Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, the DRC and Chad, depriving over two million children of an education.
"Children have nothing to do with the causes of armed conflicts, yet we are the ones most affected by it - exposed to hunger and disease, displaced, tortured, killed, sexually abused, deprived of education, trafficked, separated from parents, recruited as child soldiers," the report quoted Purity, 14, a girls' rights advocate from Nigeria, as saying.
"When will children's suffering end? Leaders should understand that if we are not heard today, we cannot speak tomorrow."
Vishna Shah, Regional Head of Advocacy, Campaign for West and Central Africa at Save the Children, said in times of crisis, children are more vulnerable to marriage as families turn to coping mechanism to survive.
"These young girls who are forced into marriage are instantly robbed of their childhood, many have to drop out of the education system and are locked into a lifestyle where they have limited decision making power and mobility," she said.
"Data also showed that 90 per cent of births to adolescent girls occur within a child marriage and in conflict situations.
"Girls often have limited opportunities to avoid unwanted pregnancies, and also have inadequate access to essential services such as antenatal care and assisted childbirth. More needs to be done to urgently protect girls from early marriage- this means increased investment in programmes and increased data to better understand the reality of the situation.
"It is time for world leaders to fully play their role as protectors of children and future generations by putting in place policies and practices for the best interest of children first."
As of 2019, 101 states had endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, committing to keeping schools safe during conflicts. Fourteen of the states are in West and Central Africa, including the DRC, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
The report said more needs to be done to support children in recovering from conflict, and suggested that the proportion of humanitarian funding aimed at the protection of children must increase from 0.5 to 4 per cent.
"In DRC, for now just $3 is available per child in humanitarian child protection funding," stated the report.
"The funding will be both for mainstream and targeted programmes on gender equality, the empowerment of girls and sexual violence in humanitarian settings as well as education in emergencies."