Providing a Fresh Start for Child Soldiers in Central African Republic

In the wake of conflict, insecurity and violence in the Central African Republic (CAR), International Medical Corps, with funding from UNICEF, has been implementing a project for the reintegration and protection of children affected by the conflict, particularly those associated with armed groups, in the northeastern prefecture of Vakaga.

The region of northeastern CAR, which is already geographically remote and isolated, is characterized by years of instability, violence and conflict between various armed groups. As a result, the region has been cut off from the rest of the country and the population left without access to basic social services, including education, water and sanitation, and healthcare.

CAR’s proximity to the border with Chad and Sudan has encouraged the cross-border movements of external rebel groups seeking to recruit new fighters. According to UNICEF, over 2,000 boys and girls were estimated to be associated with armed groups in CAR before the upsurge of fighting began in December last year. The takeover of the capital by the rebel group Seleka at end of March has not stopped these human rights violations, but instead led to a sharp increase in the recruitment of children across the country.

“During periods of violence and insecurity, children become more vulnerable to recruitment particularly if they are separated from their families or displaced from their homes,” says Mohamed Condetto Toure, International Medical Corps’ Protection Officer.

During the project, International Medical Corps identified 424 children, aged between 12 and 17 years old, who had been associated with armed groups in the region and provided them with vital services such psychosocial support, basic health care and civil rights. It was vital to mobilize the local community and ensure their participation in the reintegration process. Community protection committees were formed to ensure the protection of children within the community; to engage young people actively in discussing their needs and their rights; as well as raising awareness in the community on human rights, particularly those of women and children.

While many children are forced into joining armed groups, many children involved in the project revealed how the lack of essential services, such as formal education and professional training opportunities, was a major contributing factor to the voluntary recruitment of children.

“For children who have so little and no future prospects, armed groups often present an opportunity for a change of lifestyle and better living conditions. Many children are involved in ‘support’ roles, for example working as porters, messengers, cooks, and cleaners for the armed groups,” says Mohamed.

Therefore, International Medical Corps supported local schools by providing equipment and kits for the children and teachers; arranged recreational, sporting and creative activities and equipment, providing children and young people with a space to meet, socialize and relax; facilitated literacy and vocational training for those aged 14 to 17 years to develop their skills, including workshops in carpentry, masonry, sewing and hairdressing; provided vocational start up kits; and arranged apprenticeships schemes within the community.

“This project has helped to give a glimmer of hope to these children who have been at the frontline of the conflict and will ensure the future protection of many more,” Mohamed concludes.

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