In-depth: Child Soldiers
COTE D'IVOIRE: Children active in armed forces, militias, say witnesses
Displaced children at the Catholic mission site in Duékoué, western Côte d’Ivoire. April 2011 (File photo)
ABIDJAN/DAKAR, 21 June 2011 (IRIN) - Children have been seen working with armed forces and militias in the post-election conflict that broke out in Côte d’Ivoire in November 2010, say aid agencies.
Minors have been seen manning checkpoints, acting as scouts in battles, running errands, cooking and cleaning for forces, according to government social workers, UN agency and NGO staff, as well as direct testimonies from children. Social workers in Duékoué, in the west, told NGO Save the Children they saw children involved whom they estimated to be as young as 11.
Countrywide numbers are not clear, but there is no sign of “mass recruitment”, said UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) child protection director in Côte d’Ivoire Laetitia Bazzi. She stressed that UNICEF has no proof of child recruitment thus far. “There have been allegations, but these have not yet been confirmed,” she said, “and children have given testimony of being forced to fight in Abidjan, but this has not yet been verified."
A local NGO monitoring the number of children working with Alassane Ouattara’s Forces Republicaines de Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI) in two neighbourhoods of Abidjan has identified some 100 children thus far.
“An effort was made at the end of May to get them out, but there are some who continue to make money by doing small jobs for the military,” a representative from the NGO, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN. Those involved include some 50 girls, he added, whom the NGO had not been able to track down. “Some have no doubt been killed in violent combat, others may have fled. We are trying to find those who have been lost.”
If children are verified to be associated with armed forces or groups, the authorities must recognize that girls, as well as boys, must be released, said Hannah Thompson, head of protection for NGO Save the Children in Côte d’Ivoire.
"During the demobilization process, girls and boys are often forgotten. In addition to carrying guns, children often fill roles such as cooks, cleaners, work at checkpoints and act as porters, and girls may be forced to be wives for armed men,” she added.
Street children in Abidjan were also allegedly used as guides during the battle for Abidjan, according to local observers. Many of them picked up and kept weapons that were lying in the streets, following battles.
“Community volunteers in the west have said children have seen such atrocious things… They feel very disempowered and frustrated, and they want to do something about it,” said Thompson. This makes them want to hold positions of power so they can protect their families themselves and even exact revenge, she explained, calling for long-term rehabilitation to break the cycle of violence.
It is not yet clear if children who were associated with armed forces and groups in previous cycles of violence have taken up arms again, said Thompson. “Further research is needed to ascertain the level of re-recruitment.”
Monitoring and reporting
Côte d’Ivoire is currently not on the official list of countries monitored by the UN Security Council task force for recruitment of children and other grave violations, as per UN Security Council Resolutions 1612 and 1882
. But this may change soon, and in the meantime, UNICEF and other child-focused agencies monitor and report cases of child recruitment, while the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) verifies reports received. The information is sent to the task force on children affected by armed conflict, said UNICEF’s Laetitia Bazzi.
Five other grave violations committed against children are also tracked: the killing or maiming of children, rape and sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access
Since 2002, UNICEF has used information on children associated with armed conflict to advocate with force commanders to release children and to be more aware of children’s rights. The organization is now trying to strengthen monitoring and reporting of child recruitment all over the country, particularly in areas where the conflict led to mass displacement, said Bazzi.
Local NGOs are also working with FRCI commanders and fighters to raise awareness of children’s rights.
But to attract attention to the need to demobilize, rehabilitate and reintegrate children, Côte d’Ivoire should be re-listed by the Security Council, said Thompson.
Security and constrained humanitarian access have slowed the verification process, say NGOs. Agencies have only been able to access all neighbourhoods of Abidjan in the past three weeks, and some areas of the far west were inaccessible until last week.
But Bazzi is hopeful that progress can be made if the past is anything to go by. In 2003, following advocacy and training, ex-rebel-militia the Forces Nouvelles signed an action plan to prevent child recruitment. Work to raise awareness of children’s rights among government security forces during that period also had an impact, she said.
The government approved two child protection protocols in 2006, which UNICEF had tried to urge then-President Laurent Gbagbo to sign up to - the organization will now pursue this issue with President Ouattara, said Bazzi.
More now needs to be done to address the impact of the fighting on children who were both directly involved in the conflict, and those who were affected by it, said Thompson.
"Children must be given the opportunity to share their experiences of the conflict, and to air their distress," she said. "For example, teachers should be trained up to encourage discussion, and to ensure they don’t pass on their own stress to children. The danger of not dealing with the impact of the conflict on children is that cycles of violence may continue, rather than be broken.”