Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Child Rights

child in a tunnel
A displaced young Syrian boy works at a makeshift oil refinery near the village of Tarhin in an area under the control of Turkish-backed factions in the northern countryside of Aleppo, on February 25, 2021. Amateur refineries that have sprung up in Syria are causing health and pollution problems in the region.


Millions of children are being denied their human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Factors such as poverty, violence, and displacement, among others, have led to children being forced to work, miss out on school, and engage in marriages while under the age of 18.

Many children are also kept behind bars in several countries in the region, denying them the right to education and exposing them to violence and abuse.

As part of its file on social justice in the region, on this page, Fanack will give an overview of the issues concerning the rights of children in the Middle East and North Africa.

The global Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, entered into force on 2 September 1990. A child is defined by the Convention as every individual under the age of 18.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund ( UNICEF ), the Convention — which went on to become the most widely ratified in history, in whole or in part, on 20 November 1989 and was attached to two additional protocols on the involvement of children in armed conflicts and on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography — is still not fully implemented, unknown, or not widely understood, especially in developing countries, but also high-income countries including those in the Middle East and North Africa.

Millions of children continue to suffer violations of their rights, especially when they are denied adequate protection, such as being forced to leave school, carry out hazardous work, engage in early marriage, or fight wars or when they are held in adult prisons.

UNICEF reported in December 2020 that continuing violence, internal and external displacement, natural disasters, growing economic and gender inequality, and high rates of youth unemployment and poverty have left more than 32 million children in need of humanitarian assistance – water and sanitation, education, health care, and protection services – across the Middle East and North Africa.

Humanitarian emergencies and extreme poverty have led to internal displacement and waves of refugees fleeing to other countries. According to UNICEF, there were 6.8 million internally displaced children and 5.8 million refugee children in the region as of August 2019.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic that hit the region in 2020 fueled civil unrest and led to economic deterioration. UNICEF and Save the Children expected in 2020 that the number of children living in monetary poverty in the region would grow by 7 million over the course of 2021, from 41 to 48 million children.

Child Labour

Among the first threats affecting children living in conflict areas in the region is child labour. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), child labour refers to work that ‘is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school, obliging them to leave school prematurely, or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work’.

A report published by the League of the Arab States and the Arab Council for Childhood Development in 2019 found that conflict and war have led to an increase in child labour from 2010 onwards.

The extent of child labour in the Arab region varies substantially from country to country. In Sudan, 19.2 percent of children in the age group 15-17 years are involved in child labour; in Yemen, 34.8 percent are forced to work. Child labour often means not being able to go to school, resulting in illiteracy.

Learn more about how children in the region are being affected by war, conflict, and poverty.

Child Marriage

Despite its relative prevalence — according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights — early marriage or child marriage before the age of 18 is a flagrant violation of human rights.

The prevalence of child marriage in the Middle East and North Africa is close to the global average, with about one in five young women in the region having been married before their 18th birthday, according to UNICEF figures, and one in 25 before their 15th birthday. This means that the region is now home to nearly 40 million child brides, including currently married girls and women who were first married in childhood.

In Yemen, the rate of those married under the age of 18 has risen to nearly two-thirds of Yemeni girls compared to 50 percent before the war.

However, data of the United Nations Population Fund show that, during a period of twenty-five years  (1995 to 2020), the prevalence of child marriage in the region dropped from one in three to one in five young women, but progress has stalled during the second decade of the current century.

Child marriage has many complex reasons, which you can read about here.

While this practice is more common among girls (female minors) than boys (male minors), it remains a violation and breach of the human rights of the two types of gender.

Child marriage (the marriage of female minors) often hinders the development of girls because of early pregnancy, as married adolescent girls are usually unable to negotiate sex or the use of contraceptive methods, leaving them vulnerable to social isolation, which poses a direct risk to girls’ health and safety because a girl child is physically and mentally unprepared.

Minors are usually forced to drop out of school upon marriage so they can assume household responsibilities, denying them their right to pursue education. Thus, early marriage imposes economic pressures on them and limits their chances of career advancement.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that child, forced, and temporary marriages and “tourist” marriages are paving the way for new forms of trafficking in girls and women that are distinctive to the Arab states region.

While sexual violence against women, food insecurity, and difficulty in accessing adequate health services are serious phenomena among displaced women in the Arab region, child marriage has been another problem of concern, especially in areas of armed conflict in the Arab states region. This has resulted in miserable humanitarian conditions, against the backdrop of the so-called Arab Spring, which started early in the second decade of the current century.

Learn more about the prevalence of underage marriage in the region and its causes and effects in the file Underage marriage in the Middle East and North Africa.

Children in Detention

Throughout the region, children are being held captive, deprived of their liberty and their chances of education and development.

As part of its occupation of Palestine, Israel arrests Palestinian minors and detains them in several detention centers, mainly in Israel.

The number of Palestinians who have been detained since 1967 until the end of June 2020 amounted to around 1 million Palestinians, with more than 50,000 arrests targeting children (under the age of 18, according to international law).

The number of children and minors detained in occupation prisons at the end of June 2020 amounted to approximately 160 boys and girls held in the “Megido”, “Ofer” and “Damon” detention centers, in addition to a number of temporary detention and investigation centers. Furthermore, several children from Jerusalem are being detained in private social centers because they are under 14 years of age, according to reports by the Palestinian Authority’s Prisoner Affairs Commission.

According to data from the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees, the Israeli occupation authorities have arrested more than 7,000 children since 2000, most of whom reached the age of majority in captivity and have still not been released. Child prisoners are held in juvenile prisons under poor living conditions. They are systematically abused and often blackmailed to cooperate with the Israeli intelligence services. This is according to recently released children, who said that Israeli security officers often asked them to work as informants in return for a reduction in their sentences or better living conditions.

This occurs in contravention of the norms of international law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly Article 16, which states that no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honor and reputation, and that the child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Although the Israeli law considers a child in Israel to be anyone under the age of 18, the Israeli authorities treat the Palestinian child as anyone under the age of 16 and use Military Order 132, which allows the occupation authorities to arrest Palestinian children at the age of 12.

Immigration Detention

Children are also locked behind bars for immigration-related reasons. While it is well known that the United States holds children in detention at the U.S.-Mexican border, separated from their parents, less well known is that this phenomenon also occurs in several Arab countries.

Data on the number of children in (immigration) detention are difficult to come by. According to the United Nations, it is difficult to estimate the number of children at risk of detention, as there is an absence of reliable data on undocumented migrants. At the same time, not all countries publish data on this topic. But there are scattered case studies, including data, on children in detention.

Thousands of migrants and refugees, including unaccompanied minors, continue to be detained in detention centers across Libya. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of July 2021, 3,860 people, including 434 minors were being held in 11 detention centers. Female minors in these detention centers have reportedly been victims of sexual abuse and violence, as reported by al-Jazeera.

Minors are also being held in Egypt, which has long been a destination and transit country for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from across the Middle East and Africa. While Egypt does not have dedicated immigration detention facilities, observers have repeatedly expressed concerns about the use of police stations and prisons for immigration detention purposes. According to the Global Detention Project, 822 minors were being held captive in Egypt in 2016.

In addition, children are being held for political reasons. Authorities in Bahrain have been accused of abusing juvenile detainees who were detained in February 2021 in the wake of expected protests on the anniversary of Bahrain’s uprising in 2011. In addition, authorities tried these juveniles as adults, according to Amnesty International. In northeastern Syria, hundreds of children previously held in camps were moved to adult prisons, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.