Dozens of armed groups involved in over 30 conflicts continue to recruit or use children in their operations, despite being publicly identified by the United Nations and urged to abide by standards or treaties, such as the 1999 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. But children constitute a cheap and malleable resource and with today’s light modern weaponry, can bear arms from a young age. Therefore they continue to be used as fighters by groups who care only about their campaigns.
With militant groups still active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a partnership of organisations is working to demobilize thousands of child soldiers in the eastern region of Kivu. The news agency IRIN spoke to UNICEF’s chief of communication in the DRC. She reported that just over 100 children between the ages of 11 and 17 had recently been demobilised and taken to the ‘Centre of Transit and Orientation’ (CTO) in Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu. As soon as the children enter the demobilisation programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) starts the work of tracing their families, though with an estimated five million deaths since 1998 from war or disease, some children have no parents to go back to. The ICRC also faces huge logistical challenges in finding relatives, because more than two out of three Congolese children are not registered at birth.
Even when the parents of children are traced, the task of reintegrating youngsters back into their communities can be a sensitive one. Foster families provide the children with a base close to home, while community volunteers speak with parents and relatives, some of whom are initially too afraid or ashamed to take their children back. The youngsters can also be reluctant to return, worried how they will be treated. Girls in particular, who have often been the victim of rape, can be unwanted if they are pregnant or caring for a baby. Widespread poverty also means that many families request food or money before they will take back dependent daughters.
The CTO in Bukavu offers counselling to the youngsters and also advice on their options and plans for the future, though there are no guarantees the children won’t once again be taken by armed groups when they return home. The director of the Congolese association which runs the CTO summed up the work being done by his and the other humanitarian organisations in South Kivu – “every day when a child can be saved is a successful day.”