Several hundred children marched through the streets of Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé, on June 6 holding placards that called for an end to the use of child soldiers in the country's separatist conflict, as well as other abuses to children stemming from the fighting.
The majority of the child protesters were displaced from Cameroon's western regions by ongoing violence between the rebels and government troops.
Aid and rights groups organized the protest as a buildup to the United Nations' World Day Against Child Labor on June 12.
Blessing Associates for Women and Children, a group that defends the rights of vulnerable women and children, is among those that took part in the protest.
The group's coordinator, Baiye Frida Ebai, said even children displaced from the conflict areas are subjected to abuse.
"There are children between the ages of 5 to 14 who are engaged in plantation activities. It is our collective responsibility to give these children a second chance in life. These are children who are already being traumatized because of the ongoing armed conflicts. They have lost parents, they have lost their homes, so it is very, very important for us to look at this issue of child labor and stop it," Ebai said.
The U.N. and Cameroon government say children in the troubled western regions face violence, kidnapping, being forced into early marriage, and recruitment by armed groups.
Capo Daniel is the self-proclaimed deputy defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, one of Cameroon's rebel groups. He denied the U.N. and government's claim that separatists are recruiting child soldiers but admitted they have used force to shut down schools.
"Our code of conduct forbids the use of child soldiers," he said. "The few weapons we have, we give it to the best trained soldiers and all of the time, those are adults. We cannot allow Cameroon state schools to operate in our territory while we are engaged in war against the Cameroon state. As an alternative, we have opened community schools where our forces have total control."
Cameroon's military said the rebels use seized schools as training grounds for fighters.
Cameroon's Minister of Social Affairs Pauline Irene Nguene said the military has taken back many of the schools that were used by rebels.
The children protesting Monday also called for an end to early marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and child sex trafficking.
Nguene hailed the children for demonstrating against the abuses and pushing for their fundamental human rights. She said
Nguene says she is happy that the children have come out themselves to tell Cameroonians that all children have fundamental human rights. She said social workers should educate communities that children should be in schools, not on plantations and not forced into prostitution.
She added that female genital mutilation is a human rights abuse and people who practice it will be severely punished.
Human Rights Watch in 2021 reported that government troops committed abusive counterattacks on rebels and their alleged supporters that impacted the region's children and education.
Cameroon's military denies any abuses or targeting of civilians.
The U.N. says Cameroon's separatist conflict, which began in 2017, has deprived more than 700,000 children of education.