A child formerly associated with armed groups in Ituri District, DR Congo enters the children's space at the UNICEF-supported Disarmament & Community Reintegration centre in Bunia to begin the disarmament process.
BUNIA, ITURI DRC, 4 April 2005 - UNICEF today confirmed that 2,914 children associated with armed groups have passed through the seven Disarmament and Community Reintegration (DCR) sites in Ituri District since September 2004, in addition to the 399 children (337 boys; 62 girls), received by child protection agencies in Ituri District prior to the 1 September 2004 start of the DCR process. The Congolese government body, CONADER (Commission Nationale de la Demobilization et Reinsertion), coordinates the disarmament process.
Of the 2,914 children who have been received in Ituri during the DCR process, 2,353 are boys, and 561 are girls. "While the number of children who have left the armed forces and various armed groups has increased in Ituri, we are deeply concerned about the low numbers of girls who have been released,” says Trish Hiddleston, UNICEF DRC Child Protection Officer.
UNICEF calls upon all armed groups and forces to immediately release all children, girls and boys – irrespective of their role in the group - so they can begin to resume their normal lives with their families and go to school. UNICEF and partners will continue to receive children associated with armed groups and also calls for a halt to any further recruitment of children, a violation of both Congolese and international law.
Although progress has been made in the number of children received so far, UNICEF estimates that in Ituri District alone, at least the same number of children are still believed to be in the hands of armed groups and an even greater proportion remain with armed groups throughout the rest of the country.
Girls and boys are not only used for combat, but also for carrying arms, cooking, cleaning and other tasks. Often, girls and boys are also not only victims of daily psychological, verbal and physical violence, but also sexual violence which exposes them to HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. It is especially hard for children - both girls and boys - to resume their normal lives due to the psychological and physical harm and stigma caused by such violations.
Adult combatants must surrender at least one 1 weapon to enter the disarmament process. Although many children do arrive at the DCR sites armed, it is not a condition for children to present a weapon to be received into child protection partners’ programs. Inside each DCR site is a separate children’s space, supported by UNICEF in collaboration with child protection partners, where children are registered and referred within a maximum of 48 hours to a transit care facility. Family tracing is carried out if the child cannot be immediately reunified with his or her family. UNICEF and child protection partners ensure their temporary care and protection until they are reunited with their families.
Each child is also provided with a basic kit which includes a shirt, pants, shoes, sleeping mat, blanket, soap, high protein biscuits, etc. The provision of civilian clothing is an important part of the reintegration process as many children arrive at the DCR sites wearing military uniforms. To help care for the children, UNICEF also helps provide health supplies, water and sanitation facilities at the sites.
For most children, returning to a normal family and community environment, far removed from the traumatic lives they have led within the armed groups, is the most effective initial support that can be given. Once a child rejoins his or her family, child protection organizations follow through with important efforts in the longer term to ensure the child’s successful and lasting reintegration into the community.
As in other areas of Congo, hundreds of thousands of children in Ituri District - virtually every child –are war-affected. They have suffered massive human rights violations, including recruitment by force into armed groups, sexual, physical and psychological violence, displacement from their homes and villages, separation from their families and have little access to basic health and education services, with many hospitals and schools in Ituri looted and destroyed.
UNICEF staff members are told by almost every child –those who have been recruited and those at risk of recruitment - that they want to go to school. "The desire of children who have left the armed groups to learn and to have a normal life - to be a child again - is very moving," said Hiddleston. "Congolese place a high value on education and schools not only allow children to learn within a normal, protective environment, but education can also contribute to the prevention of future conflict, recruitment or re-recruitment, as well as facilitating reintegration and promoting reconciliation.”
While projects to support education for children who have been recruited or are at risk of recruitment are being increased, there is also a need to provide alternatives for the older children such as skills training or income generating activities. “Ensuring the successful and lasting reintegration for girls and boys who have been associated with armed groups is great challenge, particularly in a country like Congo where the standard of living is so low and so many families are so vulnerable,” says Hiddleston. “Reintegration is especially difficult – and important – in a context like Ituri, where security cannot always be guaranteed and where humanitarian access is so limited.”
One of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, the 7-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has killed more than 3 million people since 1998. The government estimates that approximately one tenth of the estimated total number of combatants in the DRC are children associated with armed groups or forces: approximately 33,000 children throughout DRC.
UNICEF works in close collaboration with the Congolese government coordinating body, CONADER, and with partners including: Caritas, COOPI, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children-UK, AMAPAD, APEK, ADECOR, ADR, UNDP, WFP, and MONUC. UNICEF and partners provide financial and technical assistance to support emergency transit care, family tracing and reunification, psycho-social care, education, recreation and skills training, as well as to the government in the prevention of recruitment and the reintegration of children who have been associated with armed groups and forces.