“I was 11 years old…” recalls Ndale Nyengela in an interview with MONUSCO, the peacekeeping mission in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. He and his friends were on their way to school when armed men approached them. “We were forced to become child soldiers for three years. I was very afraid… of going into combat, of dying.
“I got out of there thanks to the efforts of MONUSCO,” he said, also recognizing the efforts made by the local authorities and defense forces.
Peacekeeping missions have helped secure the release of over 100,000 children like Ndale since the first “Child Protection Adviser” was deployed to Sierra Leone in 2001. These specialists mainstream child protection into all aspects of UN peacekeeping operations.
An estimated 250,000 children are still associated with armed forces and armed groups worldwide according to Red Hand Day, which raises awareness of the issue. Three peacekeeping missions – UNMISS, MONUSCO, and MINUSCA – are currently working with partners to reduce those numbers, and their work is having an impact:
Separating these children is only the first step. UNMISS, MONUSCO and MINUSCA work closely with UNICEF and other partner organizations to ensure these children can be sustainably reintegrated into their communities and live their lives to their full potential. This work is also supported by work of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, who serves as the leading UN advocate for the protection and well-being of children affected by armed conflict.
Prevention is also core to peacekeeping missions’ work. UN Operations are engaging with governments, armed groups and other actors to implement legislative reforms and sign action plans with the United Nations to end and prevent the use of children by armed forces and armed groups. Missions are also addressing factors that make children vulnerable to recruitment: “When we interview children for separation from armed groups, a commonly cited contributing ‘push factor’ to having joined armed groups is that they were not attending school,” says Natalie Man, Senior Child Protection Adviser for MINUSCA. “We are working with the Ministry of National Education to operationalize Professional Training Centres, where vulnerable children are taught professions such as carpentry, mechanics and dressmaking as well as literacy – giving them alternatives to joining armed groups.”
This combined work is showing results. Ndale went on to become a children’s rights activist and serves as an Honorary Adult Friend of the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child. Tens of thousands more children like him have had their lives transformed for the better. But there is more to do.
Every February 12th Red Hand Day draws attention to the recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups and calls for urgent political action to end and prevent it. This year, redoubled support from Member States and the international community is needed to secure bright futures for the children who remain in the ranks of armed forces and armed groups, and to protect the one-in-6 of the world’s children currently living in a conflict zone.
Learn more about the work of peacekeeping’s Child Protection Advisors here, and about UNICEF and the work of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict.