19 September 2007 The situation of children in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has gone from bad to worse, with 60,000 people newly driven from their homes by fighting in North Kivu province, exposing youngsters to the dangers of forced recruitment and sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
“Separation of children from the parents always puts children at risk,” UNICEF’s Chief of Field Operations for the DRC Julien Harneis said. “Then you’ve got the creation of spontaneous camps, which leads to measles, cholera and the recruitment of children into armed groups.”
The challenges posed by forced child recruitment are vast, UNICEF said. “Children are taken by militias against their will and used as porters and fighters or, in the case of girls, for sexual exploitation. There is also great risk, of course, of injury and death from violence and battle,” it added.
The agency has received a report of 54 cases of children recruited in northeast Kivu “and to the west we’ve heard that there’s forced recruitment of all males over the age of 15,” Mr. Harneis said. “In the last couple of weeks, we believe that hundreds of children have been recruited into militias, which brings the total number of cases to well over 1,000.”
Upwards of 8,000 children have been separated from militias. In most cases, these former child soldiers are returned to their communities, but Mr. Harneis said that for many ex-soldiers the story does not end there. Many fall prey to re-recruitment or banditry.
“Eventually, they will get separated from the armed groups. But then they face issues related to alienation from their community. These children haven’t been educated and their skills aren’t appropriate to civilian life,” he warned.
UNICEF is addressing these problems by supporting a comprehensive reintegration programme for 5,500 former child soldiers who have already returned to their community, but due to the current intense fighting between the army, renegade troops and rebels, the environment is too insecure in many parts of North Kivu to implement the programme.
The agency and its partners are also stepping up efforts to provide much needed vaccinations, nutritional supplements, water and sanitation aids and shelter to the newly displaced people now living in camps and makeshift shelters. It is currently impossible to be sure how many children are at risk for being re-recruited once they are removed from the armed groups.
“Several hundred children have been recruited in the last couple of weeks,” Mr. Harneis said. “How many of them have been re-recruited? We don’t have access to these areas, so we cannot ascertain at the moment the exact origin of these recruits. What we do know is that about 5,500 children in the area have previously been in armed groups – and they are all at risk for re-recruitment.”