NEW YORK, USA, 21 May 2007 - On Thursday, UNICEF announced that negotiations have started with rebel armed groups in the northeast of the Central African Republic for child soldiers to be released and returned to their families.
The unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers in the ranks of armed groups is an alarming reality for the children of the Central African Republic. According to UNICEF's Representative for the country, Mahimbo Mdoe, only 14 per cent of children attend school in the most conflict-ridden zones, and less than 50 per cent are in school nation-wide. Additionally, malnutrition affects 40 per cent of children, and basic services are rarely available outside of the capital city. This leaves young people with very few options. Often idle and without any real hope for the future, hundreds of young people have joined the rebellion.
"There's a direct correlation between the poor indicators of poverty that we currently have in the north of the country, where the emergency is, and the rebellion, and thus child soldiers," says Mr. Mdoe. "And this is why the demobilization programme will be providing assistance in the areas of education, health, and so on, to build these sectors up."
An ambitious demobilization programme
The names of 225 of the at least 400 child soldiers that are part of the rebel groups' ranks were given to UNICEF by the rebel army last week, on May 17th, and this is just the beginning of the process. UNICEF will undertake an ambitious programme to rebuild infrastructure in the places where these demobilized soldiers live. Some 20 villages will be supported and social services rehabilitated to welcome the released children, and to facilitate in reintegrating them back into their families, thus working towards rebuilding a 'normal' life. The programme will also extend to children in the north-east of the country, not currently associated with the armed groups, but who are also in need of a scale up in health care, education, protection, security and recreation activities.
As with any child soldier demobilization, there's a chance that the children could return to armed conflict at some point in the future. "It is a risk, but one we are prepared to take," says Mr. Mdoe. He says that they will not need to seek out the families of the soldiers in order to reunite them, as for the most part the children never went far from home. "These children come from the areas that they are in anyway. So their integration should be a bit easier since they're already at home. And we've made very clear to the rebels that if any of these children are re-recruited, any UNICEF activities that involve the rebel group community will cease or be suspended."
Part of a larger trend
This comes a little over a week after the demobilization agreement in neighbouring Chad, in which UNICEF and the government of Chad agreed to release many child soldiers. Both of these examples are part of a larger worldwide awareness of the child soldiers issue, and condemnation of the practice, following on the heels of the UNICEF-co-sponsored meeting, 'Free Children from War' in Paris this past February.
"These cases have put to the public the idea that having child soldiers is bad," Mr. Mdoe asserts. "I think all of these actions that advanced the idea that if you've got child soldiers you might be in serious trouble. So, demobilize them. This is the message we've been sending. It's not acceptable to have child soldiers."