YAOUNDE, Cameroon – The director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI) in South Africa has highlighted the dehumanizing treatment women and children have been enduring in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region as the country prosecutes its war against terror.

In exclusive comments to Crux, the director of the peace entity of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) said women and children have been subjected to sex exploitation in exchange for food that they normally should have received for free.

“It is prevalent. Since 2020 we have been receiving reports of women and children from whom sex was demanded in exchange for food rations. There have also been numerous reports of children being recruited by insurgents to fight. These reports have been regularly contained in reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International,” Johan Viljoen told Crux.

He said the Attorney General of Mozambique, Elda Homo, acknowledged the problem in an interview with journalists, and blamed the press for failing to report the atrocities.

“The journalists responded by saying that they could only report if the government allowed them access to IDP camps,” Viljoen said.

In a move welcomed by the Catholic entity, the United Nations has signaled its resolve to investigate the violations against children not only in the Cabo Delgado region of northern Mozambique, but also in Ukraine and Ethiopia.

A new UN report found that 2,515 children were killed and 5,555 maimed in global conflicts in 2021.

The report, titled “Children and Armed Conflict” and released on Monday, July 11, also indicated that 6,310 children were recruited and used in conflicts globally in 2021.

Children, the report says, were also victims of abductions, sexual violence, school and hospital attacks, and denial of aid during conflicts.

“There is no word strong enough to describe the horrific conditions that children in armed conflict have endured,” said Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

“Those who survived will be affected for life with deep physical and emotional scars. But we must not let these numbers discourage our efforts. They should serve as an impetus to reinforce our determination to end and prevent grave violations against children. This report is a call to action to intensify our work to better protect children in armed conflict and ensure that they are given a real chance to recover and thrive.”

In an earlier interview with the Catholic news site Aciafrica, the director described as an issue of “serious concern” the “prostitution, murder and recruiting of children as young as 11 and 12 years old as soldiers.”

He said the actual figures could be much worse, because the UN report is based on reported cases. He told Crux that “the actual scale will only be known once the UN has completed its investigation.”

He revealed that over 50,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, 35,000 of them children below the age of 18. And many of them have no parents.

“They are forced to have sex with adult men; they are being used for child prostitution.”

Viljoen told Crux that the abused children “will be scarred for life. They will have extensive emotional and mental damage. This is likely to last for life, as there are almost no mental health facilities in Cabo Delgado.”

He said once responsibilities are established, the abusers should be sentenced to prison, as well as those who were supposed to supervise.

“It is, however, unlikely that anything will happen if the perpetrators are Frelimo party members or senior government officials. In all likelihood a few “fall guys” will be singled out and prosecuted, to create the impression that something is being done,” he told Crux.

He blamed Mozambique’s government for doing so little to stop the problem from escalating “to its current levels,” but he welcomed the UN plans to investigate.

“We welcome the report about the UN’s investigation on violations against children in Cabo Delgado,” he said.

“We are glad that the United Nations is investigating. However, it would be even better if the Mozambican government were to carry out daily investigations.”

His apprehension is based on government and UN failure to investigate and prosecute similar abuses reported in the area in the past.

The region has been caught up in conflict since 2007 when frustrated youths began protesting against government neglect despite the enormous wealth of the region. Their resentment was further fueled by the expelling of artisanal miners from commercial mining concessions in early 2017.

It was a turning point that led to armed revolt by militants known locally as al-Shabab (separate from the similarly named jihadist group in Somalia).

With insecurity in Mozambique posing a significant threat to regional security, integration and development, some 2,000 troops from the eight SADC nations known as the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) were deployed on July 15, 2021. Rwanda, a non-SADC member, had earlier sent in 1,000 soldiers to Cabo Delgado, after an agreement with Mozambique.

But attacks have not decreased. The latest came on July 13, leading to the flight of hundreds of people.