Young People in the DRC Can Be Powerful Peacemakers

29 April 2021   ·   Bintou Keita

The United Nations’ child protection and participation projects in the DRC have contributed to enabling children’s peacebuilding capacities. To achieve lasting peace, these efforts must be scaled up and carried on by local and national authorities. International actors should advocate for the DRC government to prioritize the empowerment of children and young people.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has suffered from violence and armed conflicts for more than 20 years. It is a country where 65 per cent of the population is under the age of 25, two thirds of which are even younger than 15. Many Congolese children and young people are frequently exposed to atrocities and abuses committed by foreign and local armed groups as well as by the national defense and security forces. The existence of such a young population should, in theory, produce a demographic dividend, but in the DRC any such advantage has been negated by an abundance of mentally and physically traumatized young people. Failing to support children and youth represents a missed opportunity for the consolidation of peace in the country, and their suffering jeopardizes the DRC’s sustainable development.

On the Way to End Child Recruitment: Cooperating With the Army and Educating Children

The United Nations (UN) prioritizes young people as an essential component of its Peace and Security agenda, and UN peace operations in the DRC have been mandated since 2005 to focus on child protection as a cross-cutting issue. It is largely because of this continuous UN advocacy that a strong consensus has been established in the DRC that children should not be recruited into armed groups or national security forces. In 2012, the DRC government signed an Action Plan to abolish the recruitment of children within the Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC), resulting in the de-listing of the FARDC from the UN list of organizations that recruit and use children in conflict in 2017. While the army still stands accused of rights abuses – especially in the east of the DRC – it appears to have stuck to its commitment not to use child soldiers. In fact, the DRC security forces now involve child protection partners in vetting and age-verification processes for recruitment of new FARDC troops to prevent any recruitment of minors among their ranks.

Furthermore, the state’s explicit commitment to the professionalization of defense and security forces, based on respect for and protection of human rights, holds the promise of more peaceful cohabitation between all communities. This is critical if the DRC is to create a conducive and inclusive environment for credible peacebuilding, where young people can play an active role in preventing youth from joining armed groups. For instance, more than 16,000 vulnerable children in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu have participated in various UNICEF-supported projects that inform them about alternatives to violent behavior. Children who benefitted from the training have become powerful vehicles of information on peacebuilding and social cohesion to other children.

Effective Reintegration Can Prevent Children From Rejoining Armed Groups

Next to ending the recruitment of children altogether, a key task of MONUSCO and UNICEF is supporting children and youth associated with armed groups to disengage from them and disarm. Thirty-nine armed group leaders have now signed unilateral commitments to end the use of children in conflict, voluntarily releasing about 2,300 children, including more than 300 girls, from within their respective groups.

To ensure societal stability and address traumas from violence and conflict, children formerly associated with armed groups must be reintegrated into their communities. Since 2005, MONUSCO and UNICEF have provided more than 54,000 children formerly associated with armed groups with appropriate care and psycho-social support. Some of these children have since become community focal points, raising awareness within war-hit areas on the importance of protecting children’s rights.

Despite these efforts, the sustainable reintegration of children and youth following their disarmament and demobilization remains a key challenge facing the DRC, especially when it comes to preventing them from rejoining armed groups. Research carried out by UNICEF staff in 2020 in eastern DRC showed that children who were previously members of armed groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to education, employment, and training and are often under intense pressure – or coercion – to rejoin the groups they deserted.

In this context, MONUSCO has recently implemented a community violence reduction approach that provides young people formerly associated with armed groups with short-term education and economic opportunities. For example, in Beni territory, they benefited from vocational and entrepreneurship training and short-term employment as electricians working on a project installing solar lighting in villages affected by insecurity, enhancing security for the communities concerned. Importantly, young people have played a central role in identifying communities’ security needs as well as at-risk youth.

Children Must Be Given Opportunities to Become Agents of Change

The voices of children and young people must be heard if their needs are to be met. With this goal, Radio Okapi Enfant was launched in 2020 by MONUSCO in partnership with UNICEF. Radio Okapi Enfant aims to support the government of the DRC by creating a public forum where children and adolescents can speak up and promote their rights.

Likewise, UNICEF has supported the creation of youth parliaments, which have played a vital role across the DRC in promoting constructive youth engagement, including in peacebuilding processes, within the political arena. In these parliaments, children and young people have often formulated policy recommendations that are then submitted to the authorities for consideration.

However, ultimately, it remains the responsibility of DRC authorities at all levels to constructively engage with young people and build on their capacity to act as agents of peaceful social cohesion. Youth forums that were established in 2018 in Kinshasa following MONUSCO’s engagement offer a powerful template, with youth leaders taking an active role in preventing election-related violence. Children and young people have showed they can be successful at peacebuilding and promoting social cohesion; now their involvement in these crucial roles needs to be sustained and scaled-up.

Adding International Weight to Children’s Voices: Advocacy Can Go a Long Way

I encourage peacebuilding actors in Germany, the European Union and elsewhere to advocate that the DRC government put the empowerment of children and young people at the core of its policy agenda. It is only by protecting and respecting the human rights of children and young people that sustainable social and economic progress can be made.

As the DRC government is currently undertaking a paradigm shift of its approach to disarmament and demobilization more generally, sustained and focused advocacy concerning the needs of children and youth in that context will be essential. At the same time, concrete support for UNICEF and other organizations facilitating the reintegration of children is vital, as is investing – hand-in-hand with the Congolese government – in scaling up projects that sustainably support the socio-economic development of children, youth, and their communities. I further call on United Nations Member States to contribute to strengthening child protection capacities in peacekeeping missions. Direct engagement with armed group leaders remains a critical avenue for seeking to end and prevent the use of children in conflicts.

Finally, inspired in part by UNICEF’s recent report Fear and Flight – An uprooted generation of children at risk in Democratic Republic of Congo, I would like to call on peacebuilding actors in Germany and elsewhere to:

  • support the Government of the DRC and domestic and international NGOs to ensure that those responsible for recruiting children or coercing children into acts of violence face justice;
  • support educational and training initiatives for children and young people, particularly in areas affected by armed conflict, with a view to enhancing socio-economic opportunities as well as supporting broader peacebuilding and promoting social cohesion; and
  • ensure that the voices of children and youth are heard and taken into consideration, including through concrete support for innovative efforts like Radio Okapi Enfant and by advocating for the involvement of children and youth in the development and implementation of stabilization and peacebuilding programs and in community-based decision-making more generally, such as through support for local youth forums.

This is the fourth piece in a series of articles on the PeaceLab blog which give insights into the roles of children and youth in conflict and post-conflict situations around the world.

Democratic Republic of the Congo United Nations Children

Bintou Keita

Bintou Keita is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the DRC and Head of MONUSCO. Previously, she was the Assistant Secretary-General for Africa and Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, and she has served in a number of senior management and leadership functions with UNICEF in Chad, Congo, Madagascar, Cape Verde, Rwanda and Burundi and at Headquarters.