Child Soldiers International traveled to Central African Republic in May - a country where over 14,000 children have been recruited by armed groups since 2012 - to launch new initiatives helping communities, government and local organisations end this devastating practice.
Since the mainly Muslim Séléka coalition seized power from President Francois Bozizé in 2013, Central African Republic has been trapped in an almost continual cycle of violence. Conflict between former members of the Séléka coalition, largely Christian Anti-Balaka defense militias and other armed groups has taken hold, pitting Muslim and Christians against each other.
An estimated 687,400 people are displaced, including more than 357,400 children. In 2018 alone, at least 55,000 people - including 28,600 children – have fled their homes because of escalating brutality and violence, according to a May UNICEF report.
Amid this deepening crisis, the UN says more than 14,000 children have been recruited by armed groups. But, with around 80% of the country under the control of armed groups, the number is likely higher.
A large proportion of children are kidnapped, but many join ‘voluntarily’ to protect themselves and their communities. This is especially so with Anti-Balaka groups, many of whom are poorly equipped and organised, but emerged locally for self-defense. Some children join to avenge the death of a loved one; others believe armed groups are the best option for survival, or even a better life.
It is this complex environment in which we are working to prevent further child recruitment and to improve community responses for returning children.
At the May workshop in Bangui, we launched our new illustrated booklet, created with local organisations, the government and the United Nations, to help child protection actors to understand the legal framework around child recruitment and to be able to advocate with armed groups for the release of children.
CAR became the 167th country to ratify OPAC – the international child soldier treaty outlawing the recruitment and use of children. We hope our new resources can build on this positive step and help strengthen commitments to end the use of child soldiers.
We also launched a community training tool – which we shared in several communities - to help local child protection actors promote dialogue around the negative effects of child recruitment on both the child and the community.
One of those who received the training tool and who has already started using it is Dieudonné Kougbet.
A former school teacher turned child rights activist, Dieudonné and his colleagues in a Bangui child protection network will share the resources with communities: "The booklet is very useful, I have read it every night since the workshop and we have already disseminated all copies to the rest of our members."
Dieudonné lives and works in the PK5 district - one of the capital’s most volatile areas and the sight of a church attack in May which killed 22 and injured more than 100 people.
In his area there are at least 66 children associated with Muslim and Christian armed groups including four girls, some of them had already been released but have since re-joined.
“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,” he added. “If we had t-shirts or badges it would help to give us legitimacy and we could more easily cross roadblocks without being bothered or questioned.”
For Dieudonné, the issues have become acutely personal. His family is temporarily fostering two children formerly associated with armed groups until their families can be found.
He is hopeful that now he and his network of volunteers are equipped with the new resources they can work with local leaders and authorities to improve prevention practices and over time, ‘invite the warlords’ to engage in dialogue.
“The actors aren’t really known and neither are their motivations. Sometimes their agendas are hidden. If only we knew what they really wanted we could address it,” he added. “In the meantime, we [the child protection volunteers] act to help children.”
Sandra Olsson, the programme manager at Child Soldiers International who launched the projects at workshops in CAR, said:
“The ongoing crisis in CAR remains worryingly ignored and underfunded by the international community. While government negotiations with armed groups – who want to be integrated into the national armed forces or be given an incentive to lay down their arms – have shown no recent progress, the country’s youngest citizens continue to suffer greatly.
“These new resources were created specifically for the CAR context. By working with local child protection actors like Dieudonné and others, we hope to stem the alarming levels of recruitment in the country and prevent future re-recruitment.
“The situation remains extremely volatile, with both boys and girls at serious risk of being exploited by groups on all sides of the conflict. We salute the bravery of Dieudonné and all the local organisations who work tirelessly, often risking their own personal safety, to create a better future for children in CAR.”