More than 10,000 children associated with armed forces and groups were freed in 2017 and 55,000 have been released since 2013, according to the United Nations. However, only 70% of them benefited from reintegration support.

Data on specific child soldier reintegration funding is hard to come by. A 2018 report by War Child, based on Official Development Assistance statistics, while not conclusive estimated that child soldier prevention and reintegration funding was $105m between 2012-2016, but funding during the period had dropped 33%.

In a 2018 address the UN Children and Armed Conflict head Virginia Gamba reiterated these concerns: “Providing adequate, meaningful and long-term services is a huge task,” she said. “With resources currently available, this is sometimes a mission impossible."

In a world where conflict increasingly affects children and where funding for reintegration programmes almost always falls short, we need a re-think.

Sustainable reintegration

Reintegration assistance – the support former child soldiers receive to facilitate a return to a normal life - is too often unevenly distributed, and not necessarily reaching the most vulnerable.

Limited funding means programmes are often too short or even interrupted. What’s more, the communities to which children return are rarely at the centre of planning and implementation even though it is these communities that must do (and are often already doing) the bulk of the work.

As a result, assistance programming is often ill-adapted and non-sustainable. Vocational trainings are a common example, but a three-month tailoring course for someone who is barely literate and has no business skills will rarely bear fruit.

Our DR Congo research on girls returning from armed groups, conducted across its eastern provinces in 2016, revealed that children’s needs were largely misunderstood.

Instead of focusing on acceptance within the community -- many girls are rejected because they were with men in the bush -- child protection efforts were often costly and ill-adapted.

Training several girls as seamstresses in the same small village, leaving some without clients and vulnerable to re-recruitment, failed to meet their immediate social and emotional needs. 

Of 150 girls we interviewed one-third never received any assistance. And of those who did, often vocational training, benefits were nominal. Among the 40 girls who participated in vocational training and small business ventures, only 12 were successful in earning an income.

“I have completed my training and I am a seamstress,” one girl said. “But I only earn 2,000 Francs [$2] a week because there are so few clients.”

Several initiatives were cancelled altogether as NGOs ran out of money. One girl badly treated by community members, and whose tailoring training was interrupted after three months, said: “I am despised because I am not productive. I’m doing nothing. If we'd go to school the community would treat us better.”

Such approaches highlight the risk of short-termism in reintegration assistance and that we need to work with children and their communities to understand how to best support them. 

Community-driven support

For support to be cost-efficient and for its effects to be lasting, it must be driven by the communities.

Traditional initiatives like vocational training will never absorb the large number of children associated with armed groups in many countries today. How many tailors or mechanics does one village need? 

The objective of reintegration assistance should be to make sure that returning children are accepted and treated like other children. Most other children are not mechanics or tailors.

A girl whose tailoring training was interrupted said that the most helpful support she received was from the church. “The community don’t want to come near me,” she said. “I go to church to see other children; this helps me a lot. Church has been a great help.”

Low-cost initiatives like having religious leaders or respected community members listen to, support and involve children in community activities, coupled with education were far more effective methods for reintegrating girls in Congo.

A year of literacy and numeracy classes followed by a year of agriculture training with a local agronomist and support from a local savings and loans association costs $200 per girl. Vocational trainings, often only lasting three to six months, can run into the thousands. One recent estimate suggests ‘economic and professional reintegration’ of one child soldier costs $1,000 a year in Congo.

Child Soldiers International projects have helped 245 formerly associated girls and vulnerable children return to education and the impact has been hugely positive.

“The time I spent in literacy class was very beneficial; after everything that happened to me in the bush, I had even forgotten how to spell my own name,” a 19-year-old girl in South Kivu told us in 2018.

Community and family support structures, even if weakened by years of conflict, are almost always still there. And they will still be there once humanitarians leave.

What made the girls in Congo happiest was when they could talk to their mothers and friends or go to choir practice and perform in church. This is what humanitarians call psychosocial support. It’s what any child needs; a supportive environment with people who care and meaningful activities with peers.

We need to understand what support is already available and to build on this instead of introducing new, costly approaches from the outside.

Reintegration initiatives must be provided by locals for the benefit of the community rather than to individual children by organisations providing emergency support. Humanitarians, there to fill gaps, will eventually run out of funding and leave – which is as it should be, as they are not there to replace the community.

Be it by improving agriculture productivity or training women’s church groups to support returning girls, we will reach more children at a lower cost while strengthening community resilience and capacity than by following a more traditional approach.

By following our old ways, we risk disempowering communities, making them and their children dependant on outside support.