DRC: Helping child soldiers back into society

26 March, 2012
2012, South Kivu, DRC: Chikldren gather outside the Bureau for Volunteer Service for Children and Health in Bukavu. Credit: OCHA/ Philippe Kropf
2012, South Kivu, DRC: Chikldren gather outside the Bureau for Volunteer Service for Children and Health in Bukavu. Credit: OCHA/ Philippe Kropf

Fifteen-year-old Espoir has spent the past six months in a transit centre for child soldiers. The centre is run by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Bureau for Volunteer Service for Children and Health, in Bukavu, South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

Espoir—which means “hope” in French—left his family two years ago to join an armed group. “I wanted money,” he explained. “Armed men often have money. And I could support my family with the money I earned.”  
 
But today he says he will never go back to living in the bush, to people who earn money from armed violence. “We should help people who are suffering,” he says. Espoir now wants to study social sciences and go into politics. “One day I would like to become Governor of South Kivu!” he says. 
 
More than 60 of the centre’s new admissions this year are girls who have suffered from sexual and gender-based violence and need specialized psychosocial treatment. 
 
“Once these young women get out of the armed groups, they are often stigmatized as prostitutes, even by their own families,” says one of the centre’s employees. Many have been abused as sex slaves; some arrive pregnant or with babies and require medical treatment and nutrition.
 
The children at the centre receive daily meals from the World Food Programme (WFP), which are eaten together at a big wooden table in the main hall. This is to help the children learn how to share food without fighting. Games and sports are also an important part of the curriculum. “They need to re-learn that they can lose in a game, that this is normal,” explains the centre’s Director, Murhabazi Namegabe. 
 
Progress at the centre is measured in tiny steps that might seem unremarkable to an outsider: polite but somewhat shy answers to a visitor; the blue pants and white shirt of a school uniform drying on the wall; two boys absorbed in a game of checkers; or a burst of laughter coming from inside the buildings. For these children, such normal, everyday experiences may be something new or long forgotten. 
 
Nobody knows how many child soldiers there are in DRC. Many of them were recruited by force. But more than 33,000 child soldiers have been demobilized in DRC since 2004, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
 
Earlier this year, the UN and its humanitarian partners appealed for US$718 million to address the urgent needs in this vast country. Led by OCHA, the Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) represents the joint response strategy of numerous humanitarian organizations, in support of the Congolese authorities. This year’s HAP earmarks nearly $49 million in the Protection Cluster’s budget to help improve access to reintegration programmes for demobilized child soldiers, unaccompanied minors and victims of sexual and other violence. The transit centre hopes to mobilize $400,000 this year through the HAP for its operations.
 
Partners including the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC (MONUSCO), UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross are working to help reintegrate child soldiers into society. UNICEF offers education, vocational training and access to health services.

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