The United Nations Children's Fund is calling for a halt to the forced recruitment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It says all warring parties in North Kivu Province forcibly recruit children into their armies. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.
The U.N. Children's Fund said fighting between government and rebel groups in North Kivu is putting children at risk of abuse and exploitation. It said children displaced by the war are particularly vulnerable.
UNICEF spokeswoman Miranda Eeles said the forcible recruitment of children as soldiers is widespread throughout the region and is on the rise. She said this week UNICEF received unconfirmed reports that five children in Kitchanga were recruited.
"The recruitment of many children appears to be continuing amongst all the armed groups in North Kivu. UNICEF calls on all armed groups to immediately stop recruiting children and to release all children in their ranks," she said. "The recruitment of children is a war crime and commanders will be held accountable against international standards."
War in the eastern DRC has been raging for more than a decade between the Congolese government and various rebel groups. Human rights organizations estimate more than five million people have died, mostly from preventable disease and malnutrition. Hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless.
Since the latest flare-up of fighting in August, more than one-quarter of a million people have been displaced. UNICEF said children who flee their homes are often separated from their families and left unprotected.
Eeles said displaced children in North Kivu are at risk of acute diarrhea and measles. She said many children are malnourished.
She said schools traditionally are seen as zones of safety and comfort for children. But, in North Kivu, she said schools no longer play this role.
"Unfortunately, 85 percent of schools in Rutshuru territory still remain closed to around 150,000 students ... Also, in addition to this, even if the schools were open, we are finding that parents are still afraid to send their children to school due to killings, disappearances and then, of course, schools seem to be a target for forced recruitment," Eeles said.
UNICEF is calling for all armed groups to create a safe environment so schools can re-open and children can peacefully resume their studies.