Editor's note: This post was written by Natalie Schreffler. This is the third in a blog series about issues currently perpetuating the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including the conflict minerals trade, sexual violence, and child soldier recruitment. Although many Congolese are facing incredibly difficult situations, there are local civil society groups taking action and creating avenues for sustainable peace. In this blog series, I will discuss each issue and give examples of organizations making positive changes.
Child recruitment by armed groups and elements of the Congolese army has had a devastating effect on the youth of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As Congolese civil society leaders and the international community struggle to address the deadliest conflict since World War II, one of the most serious issues that demands greater attention has been the impact on the DRC’s children.
Conflict in the DRC as a whole has generated alarming statistics—between 1998 and 2007, 5.4 million people died mostly from war-related causes, and as of December 2013, more than 2.6 million people had been displaced. In addition, rebels and soldiers use rape and sexual violence as a weapon to disrupt the social fabric of communities. Underlying these statistics, however, is the distressing effect the violence has had and continues to have on Congolese children.
UNICEF estimates that there are 4 million orphaned children in the country, signaling critical gaps in quality and access to maternal health care. One in seven children dies before reaching the age of five, due largely to malnutrition. More than a quarter of children between ages 5 and 14 are forced to work, including as child soldiers and sex slaves, and children often witness or participate in killing and other atrocities. The psychological trauma children experience after witnessing or participating in violence that often includes their parents or loved ones is a dire indicator of DRC’s future as a stable country. Numerous non-governmental organizations focus on these issues, including local organizations such as Bureau pour le Volontariat au Service de l’Enfance et de la Santé (Voluntary Office at the Service of Childhood and Health or BVES) and various international organizations including International Rescue Committee, International Committee of the Red Cross, World Relief, and Amnesty International. Despite their work, the exorbitant number of orphans and the extent of the psychological trauma continue to pose a threat to the country’s future potential.
The recruitment of child soldiers is a defining aspect of the conflict that represents serious immediate and long-term ramifications. The UN reports at least 1,000 cases between January 2012 and August 2013. After such an experience, children who work as child soldiers must be carefully and effectively adjusted back into their home communities in order to restore and maintain their mental health and community cohesion. For example, in post-conflict situations where communities accept children back into daily life, studies show that the children have less depression and more confidence, and children who are able to reintegrate into the community and return to school after working as soldiers show more positive behaviors, attitudes, and resilience than those that are not reintegrated. Access to public health resources in the community also contributes to the success of child soldiers’ reintegration into a community.
BVES is a Bukavu-based civil society organization that works directly on issues related to child soldiers. As group of volunteers working for the health, education and protection of children, BVES works to promote, protect, and defend children’s fundamental rights. Directed by Bukavu native and world renowned children’s rights advocate, Murhabazi Namegabe, one of BVES’ most significant and important objectives is to provide transitional care and adequate psychosocial assistance to child victims of human rights violations by helping these children reintegrate into their communities and family lives. BVES partners with other NGOs to maximize the benefit to children affected by the conflict.
BVES is doing immensely important work for restoring the lives of children in the DRC, but significant challenges remain. A lack of financial resources, shortage of social infrastructures for successfully reintegrating children back into their communities, and continued insecurity in the region are all factors that must be addressed in order for BVES and other similar organizations to achieve the goal of ending the cycle of child soldiering. Investing in Congolese children is a vital step to economic and social development. Thus, providing proper care to victims of child soldier recruitment and traumatized youth will be a necessary building block in Congo’s peace process, stability, and security.