DR Congo

6 questions about the issue of child soldiers in DRC

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© UNICEF DRC 2015 Dubourthoumieu


INTERVIEW SPECIALIST – For the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, Sabrina Cajoly, coordinator of the Working Group for the Protection of Children, answers six questions about children in the forces and armed groups in the DRC. 

1- Are there still children in the forces and armed groups in the DRC?

In the DRC, thousands of children have been recruited and used in armed conflicts by armed groups. Since 2015, according to the United Nations Mechanism that is in charge of documenting serious violations against children in armed conflicts[1], no case of recruitment by the FARDC has been documented. On the other hand, armed groups continue to recruit and use children, generating violence that passes from generation to generation. They are primarily used as fighters, carriers and sex slaves. Because of this, these children are separated from their families, deprived of their right to an education, and exposed to serious physical and emotional trauma. The government estimates that the number of children involved with armed groups is 3662[2].

2- What is being done to prevent and put an end to the recruitment of children into the forces and armed groups?

In addition to the ratified International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, in 2009 the DRC adopted the “Law for the Protection of Children”, which made recruiting and using children in armed forces and groups illegal, and reinforcing the Statute of Rome which created the International Penal Court and which was ratified by the DRC in 2002.

In 2012, the DRC’s government signed a Plan of Action with the United Nations to prevent and put an end to the recruitment and use of children, as well as other serious violations of children’s rights committed by security forces. Since then, to put this plan into action, the government has taken a series of measures over the past two years that have worked towards ending the recruitment of children by the FARDCs.

These actions continue, and to prevent new cases happening, at the start of 2017 the government gave an order to all personnel in the FARDC to respect the standard operating procedure adopted in April 2016 on age verification for members of the FARDC. This procedure is a tool to help prevent recruitment and has now been implemented at all levels of the army.

3- How can we help to reintegrate these children into society?

In 2016, thanks to the actions of UNICEF and its partners, 3442 children (of which 478 were girls) left armed groups in conflict zones, and benefited from transitory care and were able to be reunited with their families. In addition, 1274 of those who left received support to reintegrate though school, access to training for professional qualifications, or activities that generate revenue.

On leaving armed groups, the children are cared for by professionals in structured, specialised centres called Guidance and Referral Centres or in Transitional Host Families. On average, they stay there for three months, during which time they are given clothes and basic hygiene care, medical attention, school courses to help them catch up, as well as psychosocial support – notably through recreational and sporting activities. After this phase of transition, they are reunited with their families and, as far as possible, benefit from intervention programmes aimed at getting them back into the school system or in social and economic life through professional vocational training. These all help to promote a feeling of acceptance at the heart of the communities that the children are put back in to.

However, it should be noted that in 2016, due to insufficient resources, more than 2100 children that came out of armed groups were still waiting for reintegration. Alongside them are a similar number of ‘vulnerable’ children affected by conflict, who, because of the Paris Principals[3] should benefit from the same support as the others so that the reintegration programme is inclusive. In total, taking into account the children who have not been able to receive help in previous years, more than 4500 children from armed groups and the same number affected by conflict are still waiting for complete reintegration, because of a lack of funds[4].

4- Today, what are the greatest challenges in preventing and putting an end to recruiting children into armed groups?

The recruitment and use of children by armed groups remains a major challenge, notably because armed groups and informal militia continue to multiply, which prolongs the crisis. It also makes it more complex, and it extends even beyond the zones usually affected by conflict. As such, it is difficult to establish dialogue with armed groups and to bring those who recruit and use children to justice. And above all, it is difficult to guarantee the long-term reintegration of children who have previously been associated with armed groups because the country is unstable.

To add to this, the extreme poverty of families remains a fundamental cause and the main reason for the forced and voluntary recruitment of children. This observation calls for a vast programme of economic development for the areas hit by conflict. Individual support for children and their families should ideally be linked to programmes aimed at reducing poverty at the community level in order to be long-lasting, and be considered to produce a real return for the country.

5- How is the problem of children in armed groups linked to other protection problems in the DRC?

The problem of children involved with armed groups is part of a range of larger and more complex protection problems in a country where the number of displaced people has gone from 1.6 to 2.1 million, and the number of armed groups from 50 to 70[5] – and this has gone almost unnoticed. The response to the multiple protection needs of the children in this context necessitates more intervention – both state and independent, international and national.

The Working Group for the Protection of Childhood (GTPE) endeavours to respond to this need. The GTPE is a forum charged with coordinating actions directed at protecting children in emergency situations, under the direction of UNICEF and the co-direction of the government and Save the Children. Constituting a “domain of responsibility” of Cluster Protection, it holds monthly meetings with the Minister for Social Affairs, Humanitarian Action, and National Solidarity, non-governmental organisations (international and national), United Nations agencies, and funding bodies that are directly implicated in projects for protecting children in emergency situations. The goal is to guarantee longer-term, responsible and efficient interventions. In order to do this, the GTPE follows and promotes the “Minimum Standards for the protection of children in humanitarian intervention”, launched in 2010 as a global tool to guide activities for the protection of children. Since 2009 in the RDC, the national GTPE, based in Kinshasa in close collaboration with the 18 sub-national GTPEs, has coordinated preventative and responsive strategies with a view to reducing abusive, negligent, exploitative and violent situations in which the victims are children, in emergency and transitory contexts, including children involved with armed groups.

In practice, the members of the GTPE come together regularly to exchange information on humanitarian emergencies that affect children in the DRC to decide collectively what can be done, where, by who, and how, to remedy protection problems. For example, a national NGO member has recently produced and sent out a leaflet aimed at informing and raising awareness of the people living in areas affected by conflict in the DRC on the risks linked with the recruitment and use of children, in order to prevent this phenomenon and to help bring people to justice.

6- As your role as coordinator of the Working Group for the Protection of Children, what is the appeal/message that you want to spread for the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers?

As the African proverbs goes, “you can’t tie a bundle of wood with only one hand”. In other words, there’s strength in numbers. It is important that all those participating in child protection, whether they be from the government, international organisations, or national or international NGOs, join forces to benefit from adequate financial support, and coordinate their actions in order to efficiently protect children from armed conflicts. I also hope that the global campaign “Children, not soldiers” becomes a reality in the DRC.

[1] Monitoring and reporting mechanism on serious violations committed towards children during armed conflicts (‘Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism – MRM’, in English), created in 2005 by the 1612 Resolution of the United Nations Security Council.

[2] Third phase of the national demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration programme (DDR III), July 2015.

[3] Directive principals relating to children associated with armed forces or groups, also known as the Paris Principals, 2007.

[4] Source: UNICEF

[5] Source: Aperçu des Besoins Humanitaires 2017-2019

More info about child soldiers in DRC

Thanks to Sweden (SIDA), the USA (USAID), Canada (CIDA), Japan (JICA), the NetherlandsBelgium as well as UNICEF FranceAmade MondialeUNICEF Germany and previously CERF for their support to programmes assisting children released from armed groups and forces.

Translated from French by Lucy Oyelade