DR Congo

Struggling to survive: Children in armed conflict in DR Congo

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Summary

Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) endure some of the most miserable treatment found anywhere in the world, despite outward signs of progress in DRC, such as the creation of a power-sharing transitional government, the presence of the United Nations' largest peacekeeping operation and billions of dollars granted by donors for post-conflict reconstruction.

In 2006, DRC continues to endure the world's deadliest humanitarian crisis, with more than 38,000 people dying every month as direct and indirect consequences of the armed conflict, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Approximately 45 percent of these deaths occur among children under age 18. In addition, children are targets of human rights violations committed by armed forces and groups on a daily basis. The overwhelming majority of these crimes are committed in an environment of utter impunity.

Yet, since the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict published its first report on DRC in 2003, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, some progress has been achieved. Thousands of children have been demobilized from armed forces and groups. In some areas, the number of displaced people has dropped significantly. There has been an increase in serious efforts to confront sexual violence and exploitation. Combatants from armed groups have begun to integrate into the unified national army. Also, a new constitution was affirmed during a nationwide referendum in December 2005.

Despite these advances, Watchlist has documented continued, pervasive and egregious violations against children in DRC in each of the major categories identified by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005) on children and armed conflict. These violations include killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, abduction, denial of humanitarian assistance, attacks on schools and recruitment and use of children. In addition, various other violations, such as forced displacement and torture, also continue to be committed against children and their families. The following are highlights of Watchlist's findings between 2003 and end of January 2006:

Killing and Maiming

Extreme violence and fighting have continued throughout DRC. Children are not spared, as all armed forces and groups in DRC continue to kill and maim children. Documented cases recount gross atrocities such as armed combatants shooting, mutilating, stabbing and burning children alive.

Rape and Other Forms of Sexual Violence against Girls

All armed forces and groups continue to perpetrate rape and sexual violence against girls and women. The victims of rape or other forms of sexual violence in DRC are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands. In many cases, the rapes are characterized by severe cruelty, including against young girls and sometimes boys, such as gang rapes, mutilation of genitalia, rape involving the insertion of objects into the victim's genitals, forced rape by one victim upon another and rape-shooting. Some girls are held in captivity as sexual slaves for extensive periods of time.

The majority of girls who are victims of rape suffer severe injuries that require surgery and can lead to venereal diseases, HIV infection, sterility and other serious health problems. The majority of these survivors of gender-based violence do not receive medical treatment after their assault. Following rape, many girls are abandoned by their families and communities and condemned to lives of poverty.

Denial of Access to Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian agencies continue to face attacks and other obstacles by armed forces and groups, such as looting, destruction of humanitarian resources, contingency stocks and field bases, confiscation of vehicles, harassment of expatriates and national staff, levying of illegal taxes and complication of administrative procedures. Furthermore, in some instances humanitarians have been forced to delay or suspend aid deliveries, deeming that local recipients are likely to be targets of military or political harassment following the delivery of aid.

Attacks on Schools and Hospitals

Armed forces and groups have seriously damaged, pillaged, burned and destroyed schools in eastern DRC. Combatants have also pillaged and destroyed school supplies. During attacks on schools, armed combatants have forcibly recruited boys at gunpoint, especially in the most conflict-affected areas of eastern DRC. The attacks on schools and other problems with the educational system have deprived an estimated 4.6 million children are deprived of their right to education, including 2.5 million girls.

Armed forces and groups also pillage and loot hospitals and other medical facilities. As a result of these attacks and the general devastation of the nation's healthcare system, children are dying each year from preventable causes, such as malnutrition, malaria, diarrheal diseases, acute respiratory infections, measles, tuberculosis and others. The war has left the nation largely with out drugs, medical equipment and skilled medical personnel, and with the national health infrastructure in a state of collapse.

Abductions

Various armed groups primarily in eastern DRC continue to abduct children. These groups include the Mai Mai, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), the Democratic Forces for Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and its new splinter group, known as the "Rastas," as well as the forces of General Laurent Nkunda and several others. Young girls have been abducted and held for ransom in order to be sold in exchange for cows or gold and for other purposes, according to local sources.

Children Associated with Armed Forces and Groups

At least 30,000 boys and girls are estimated to be taking an active part in combat or to be attached to armed forces and groups and used for sexual or other services. Almost all girls and some boys are sexually abused by their commanders or other soldiers. Children often fight on the frontlines and witness or are forced to participate in serious human rights abuses against civilians.

The overall Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process for children has been extremely protracted. The national governmental body charged with overall management of the DDR process, the National Commission for Demobilization and Reintegration (CONADER), does not have the capacity, technical experience and leadership to successfully oversee this process.

Other Violations

In addition to the six egregious violations identified by the United Nations Security Council, children in DRC continue to face a spectrum of other horrific abuses and crimes. These include: forced displacement, forced labor, forced involvement in the illicit exploitation of natural resources and others. Approximately 150 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by United Nations (UN) personnel have been uncovered and investigated. In addition, children, especially girls, are accused of witchcraft or sorcery, forcing them onto the streets or into other dangerous situations, in some cases leading to their murder by family or community members. Children and adolescents are further threatened by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and by violence and insecurity due to the widespread availability and use of small arms and light weapons throughout DRC.

Recommendations

In response to these findings, the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict makes urgent recommendations to the governing authorities of DRC, all armed groups operating in DRC, the UN Security Council, the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the humanitarian community in DRC, donors and the International Criminal Court. These recommendations urge all parties to take immediate and sustained steps to protect Congolese children and adolescents from further violations and to find remedies for those who have already endured imponderable suffering. First and foremost, Watchlist calls on all armed forces and groups in DRC to immediately halt crimes against children.