In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) we support the reintegration of former child soldiers coming out of armed groups into their families and communities. We do this by promoting practical, community-led initiatives, including our current pilot programme to help 170 former girl soldiers return to education. We also prevent child recruitment through training and awareness-raising.

Background

Eastern DRC has been plagued by armed conflict involving national and foreign armed groups and forces for over 20 years. The majority of fighting forces have recruited and used children, and most armed groups still exploit boys and girls today. After signing an Action Plan with the UN in 2012, the Congolese government has virtually stopped enlisting children into its armed forces, although many of its soldiers continue to use girls for sexual and domestic purposes.

The issue

Children continue to be recruited and used by numerous armed groups in DRC. Girls are often used as ‘wives’ and sexually abused by their commanders and other soldiers. Although a third of all children associated with armed groups in DRC are thought to be girls, they make up only about seven per cent of children released to date. When they are released or escape from armed groups, they receive little, poorly adapted, or no support to reintegrate into their communities, and many are shunned by family and friends.

Our work

In 2016 we interviewed more than 150 former girl soldiers, and key members of their communities, in the conflict- affected provinces of Eastern DRC.

This research formed the basis of our extensive new report, What The Girls Say, which was published in June 2017.

We listened to the experiences of these girls, and the challenges they face. The girls and their communities themselves then suggested ways to improve the assistance and help girls overcome these challenges. We are now supporting local organisations to deliver the support these girls urgently need.

The brave girls we spoke to repeatedly told us about the crucial importance of education in their lives. Many joined armed groups to be able to pay for schooling, and most said that being in school promotes their social acceptance and reintegration into the community once they come back.

Among many other girls we met Yvette*, from Rutshuru, in North Kivu. Yvette was 14 years old when she joined the self-defence militia known as the Mai-Mai Nyatura. She decided to join them after being kicked out of school for failing to pay her fees. She spent one year with the group as an armed escort. She now lives with her aunt but still cannot afford to pay her school fees.

In Nyiragongo South, in North Kivu, we met Neema*, now 16-years-old. Neema told us:

If we could go to school, the community would be nicer to us, we would get some consideration, that would help a lot.

Current projects

With help from our partners in DRC, we are helping former girl soldiers like Yvette and Neema to go back to school, either straight away, for those who have not been out of school for too long, or through catch-up classes to help them get to the required level for formal education. We also organise literacy classes for girls who have never been to school or who are too old to start. These classes help both former girl soldiers and other vulnerable girls in their communities.

In 2016, we helped 55 former girl soldiers in Eastern DRC return to education. By the end of September 2017, a further 122 girls will be back in classrooms across the region learning invaluable skills and finding their place in their communities once again.

Watch a short film on our project in DRC.

Alongside our educational projects, we have produced a practical guide to help communities and local NGOs better understand and assist returning girl soldiers. Published in Swahili, Lingala and French, the guide offers practical, low-cost solutions enabling communities to directly improve the lives of former child soldiers.

Download the report here. Download the guide here

Our impact

For the last 10 years, partnering with Congolese organisations, Child Soldiers International has delivered extensive research, analysis and advocacy on the military use of children in DRC. This research has contributed to decisive steps by the United Nations and Congolese government to stop the recruitment of children by the state armed forces.

We have produced awareness-raising material that is widely used across the eastern provinces to inform local authorities, communities and armed groups about their obligation to protect children. “This is an excellent tool to build the capacity of army officers,” said a commander in Congolese army.

Through our 2016 programme to address the needs of girls coming out of armed groups, we hope to ensure that reintegration programmes can better meet the needs of girls in the future.

What we’ll do next

Child Soldiers International will continue its research, advocacy and awareness-raising to help prevent the recruitment and use of children in DRC, and in particular to stop the military exploitation of girls. We will work with Congolese organisations, the UN and the DRC government to enable the release of more girls from armed groups and to ensure that they receive the assistance needed to recover and rebuild their lives, once back home.

Photo © Mads Nissen/Berlingske/Panos Pictures