DR Congo's child soldiers forgotten in election campaigning
By Shabtai Gold Nov 24, 2011, 9:47 GMT
Johannesburg - They are too young to vote and their plight seems forgotten by politicians as election campaigns head into the final stretch before voting on Monday.
But UN officials warn that the Democratic Republic of Congo still has one of the highest prevalences of child soldiers in the world, nearly eight years after the country's brutal civil war officially came to an end.
Like the infamous scourge of rape in the eastern Congo, where doctors estimate one woman is sexually assaulted nearly every minute, the child soldiers are a sign that conflicts still simmer in the vast Central African nation.
'Congo is a source of concern. Politicians are not putting that much emphasis on this issue of child soldiers. It is not an election issue,' Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN's special envoy for children in conflicts, told dpa by telephone.
Gangs roam between Congo, and its northern neighbour, the desperately poor and landlocked Central African Republic (CAR) especially in lawless border regions, hindering efforts by aid groups to locate child soldiers and release them.
And the government lacks a detailed plan to obtain the release of thousands of minors being employed, often by force, in armed groups. Coomaraswamy says she therefore considers informal and irregular deals to be the best means by which to free the children.
'Using child soldiers has become very widespread,' Coomaraswamy said in an interview after visiting CAR, where she helped obtain the release of hundreds of children from a militia.
The children will be given assistance by UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, which will try to rehabilitate them.
'The main goal of the process is to unify the child with his or her family or his or her community of origin,' says Alessandra Dentice, the head of child protection operations for UNICEF in Congo.
Since many have missed the opportunity to attend school, the UN tries to give them rapid primary schooling or teach them job skills so they can earn a living when they reach adulthood.
Rehabilitations last several months and costs about 750 dollars per child, but the UN often lacks adequate funds. UNICEF in Congo projects that next year its budget will fall 3.5 million dollars short.
Many of the child soldiers are actively recruited by the militias or forced into service, and at least two Congolese warlords have been accused of such by the International Criminal Court.
Yet, since 2003, tens of thousands of children have been pulled out of Congolese militias, and subsequently handed over to the UN in traumatized states.
In the worst cases, the children simply get abducted again, by the same or other militias, and end up back in the bush.
Some children get a taste of the life - spending time with comrades, earning some money, and wielding the power that comes with possessing a weapon - and have trouble adjusting to civilian life. Even after completing their reintegration programmes, they might yearn to rejoin militias.
With poverty rife, these children believe that the armed groups can at least provide them with food on most days and an extra set of clothes.
'The longer the child spends away from the community and family, the more difficult the reintegration process is, and the more difficult the sustainability of the process becomes,' notes Dentice.
There is also concern that as the national army begins to integrate former militia members into its ranks, children may slip through the cracks and end up officially serving as soldiers in the military.
Like the rape epidemic plaguing the country, tackling the child soldier problem will take strong political will, a will that seems absent in the election campaign.
As a result, it is aid groups that are left with the job of trying to rescue and rehabilitate the children.