Last September, Central African Republic became the 167th country to ratify the UN child soldier treaty, known by its acronym, OPAC. The government thus committed to outlawing the use of child soldiers.
Yet verified cases of child recruitment quadrupled in 2017 compared to 2016, according to the UN’s latest Children and Armed Conflict report, with 196 boys and 103 girls affected. The numbers are likely far greater; with 80 percent of the country controlled by armed groups, confirming child recruitments is an onerous task.
More difficult still is ensuring that the 12,000 children who are known to have returned home since 2014 integrate back into society and resist joining up again – as well as ensuring that new children aren’t recruited.
Local volunteers and workers have taken on those tasks, cooperating with the government and international organisations. But they need help.
The ratification of OPAC was a positive step, and a year on there are signs that the government is trying to tackle the issue. The Ministry of Justice is finalising a dedicated national law to criminalise recruitment of under-18s by both government and non-government actors, and the UN report shows that 1,816 children were formally released from armed groups last year.
In June, the Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique, part of the former Séléka coalition of armed groups, signed a UN plan in which they committed to ending child recruitment.
“Despite this milestone, the situation in CAR remains extremely worrying,” UN Special Representative for Children and Conflict Virginia Gamba said. “Intercommunal violence and confrontations between armed groups have dramatic consequences for the civilian population and, more so, children.”
Dieudonné Kougbet knows that first-hand. Forced to flee to a refugee camp five years ago as violence erupted in Bangui, the capital of CAR, he has been back in the city’s PK5 neighbourhood for 10 months. A retired secondary school teacher, Dieudonné is part of a network of community volunteers who work in the largely Muslim district to protect children from recruitment by armed groups.
PK5 is among the most volatile areas in the city. Armed figures patrol its many roadblocks and extortion is widespread; exploitation of children by those who control the streets is a daily reality.
In 2012, militia overthrew president François Bozizé and the power grab sparked deadly violence among the mainly Muslim Séléka armed groups and the predominantly Christian anti-balaka militias, as well as others. The ensuing civil war has killed thousands and displaced more than 700,000.
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Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live
In PK5, at least 66 neighbourhood children are known to be associated with Muslim and Christian armed groups, Dieudonné said – some were released but have since re-joined. As conflict in CAR has become more fractured, with more and more groups vying for control, Dieudonné says engaging those armed groups is increasingly difficult.
“The actors aren’t really known, and neither are their motivations,” he said. “Sometimes their agendas are hidden. If only we knew what they really wanted we could address it. In the meantime, we act to help children.”
Some children are forced to fight, and many are exploited as domestic and sexual slaves. A large proportion of the 14,000 children known to have been “recruited” by armed groups in CAR over the past six years were kidnapped, but many joined because they wanted to protect themselves and their communities. This is especially so with the poorly equipped and organised anti-balaka groups, which emerged as local militias to protect specific neighbourhoods.
And keep in mind that because many cases of child recruitment go unverified, it’s likely that many more than 14,000 children have been recruited. The fact that armed groups often operate in residential communities increases the likelihood of children joining or re-joining such groups.
In Pissa, a town a short drive from Bangui, several children were known to have joined anti-balaka groups. Many local residents were unaware of the OPAC ratification or a national labour law that incorporates a child recruitment ban. Several people said they believed that boys and girls as young as 13 were ready to be tasked with adult responsibilities.
Lea, a local volunteer working to prevent recruitment, said engaging girls who had returned was difficult. The girls had worn military uniforms when they belonged to armed groups, she explained, and that helped them feel “superior”, but now at home “they no longer have the opportunity to be big.”
Returned child soldiers had experienced power and influence within the armed groups, and some had earned money, another local resident said. Many such children had “lost the taste” for school, she added. “How can we convince them to go back to school and not take up arms?”
Local volunteers like Lea, Dieudonné, and others are eager to help, but they can’t do it alone. Support for reintegration is key, but of those 12,000 children known to have been released since 2014, more than 5,000 have not yet received any, UNICEF figures show.
Government-facilitated vocational schemes in Pissa designed to help returned child soldiers have, for example, been marred by delays and funding shortfalls. As a result, several former child soldiers who could have been helped are no longer eligible for the programmes, since they are now over the age of 18.
Meanwhile, the failure of government negotiations with armed groups has meant demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration support programmes for adult fighters are yet to start. So children remain in communities that are still armed and afraid or struggling for either power or survival.
In this atmosphere, what can help Dieudonné and others ‘help the children’? Wider awareness of the long-term ramifications of child recruitment is a start. “We are planning a large awareness raising campaign but there is a lack of resources, especially for visibility because some of our members cannot move around easily,” Dieudonné said.
He and his colleagues were the first to receive materials put together in a collaboration among local groups in CAR, the government, the UN, and our organisation. These are designed to guide volunteers in promoting dialogue around the negative effects of recruitment on children and their communities. Other materials focus on helping organisations and communities understand the legal framework around child recruitment and learn to advocate with armed groups for the release of children.
Dieudonné and his colleagues know they have a lot of work to do. And they know they can’t do it alone. “We will start in small groups with the leaders and local authorities for each neighbourhood, who can then invite the warlords,” he explained.
The signing of OPAC by the CAR government opened the door to a better future for tens of thousands of the country’s children. But only with the help of communities, of Dieudonné and other local volunteers, will that future begin.
(TOP PHOTO: Children released by armed groups in Central African Republic. CREDIT: Anthony Fouchard/UNICEF)