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Release and reintegration of child soldiers: One part of a bigger puzzle

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Paper presented by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers at the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Rehabilitation and Reintegration of War-Affected Children

22-23 October 2009 - Brussels, Belgium


The paper outlines key developments in international efforts to end the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict and highlights some of the challenges involved in the release and reintegration of children associated with armed forces and groups.

It notes that, despite significant attention to the issue, the phenomenon of child soldiering remains widespread. While non-state armed groups account for the majority of children recruited today, there remain a number of governments that persist in illegally recruiting and using children directly in national armed forces or indirectly via government-backed militias and armed groups.

International engagement has, however, contributed to tens of thousands of children leaving armies and armed groups through official disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs.

As experience has been acquired and a greater understanding of the needs of returning children gained, best practices have been agreed. However, effective implementation of these practices remains challenging. Where hostilities are ongoing efforts to release children and prevent their recruitment and re-recruitment have met with only limited success. In some situations, particularly in Asia, programs to work for release and reintegration do not exist. Even in post-conflict situations where official DDR programs are established, many children associated with fighting forces cannot or do not access them. In the meantime, ongoing instability, lack of economic reconstruction, weak governments and the absence of legal and institutional frameworks necessary to ensure the protection of children can undermine the prospects for successful reintegration even for those who enter formal programs. In these contexts, girls, particularly girl mothers and their children, are among those likely to fare particularly badly and who often face stigmatization and rejection by their families and communities.

The paper argues that, while DDR programs and funding for them are generally short-term, successful reintegration is a long-term exercise which needs to be linked to longer-term recovery and reconstruction programs. The root causes of recruitment in each given context must also be addressed and a greater emphasis placed on prevention in order to break cycles of recruitment and rerecruitment.

This requires not only a focus on the individual child and his or her specific needs, but should also encompass a broader approach that works towards changing the environment to which children are being returned such that the full spectrum of their rights are respected and protected and durable barriers to recruitment are erected.