The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, is pushing for child soldiers to be demobilized in Africa's Great Lakes region, as several peace drives there build momentum. The agency says funding is in place to help the children leave the military and restart their lives.
UNICEF's top child protection official, Manuel Fontaine, says peace initiatives in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda are making it possible to get more children under the age of 18 out of fighting units. "We insist that child soldiers could be demobilized, even in conflict situations. We should never wait for peace to get children out of any form of armed group. But, obviously, that's a better timing at the moment. It's more conducive to demobilization," Mr. Fontaine said.
He says there are currently 1,200 child soldiers in Uganda, fighting mainly with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. He says that over the past 14 years, the group has abducted some 10,000 children, boys to fight and girls to serve as sex slaves.
According to UNICEF, The Democratic Republic of Congo still has some 10,000 children recruited to fight, while Rwanda has up to 2,000 children involved in combat.
UNICEF says, even though some of the children do not directly engage in fighting, they are exposed to many dangers. They may be used as porters, carrying very heavy loads, or as messengers or spies passing information and scouting out enemy territory.
Sometimes, boys, but mainly girls, are used as sex slaves. They are exposed to violence and HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The girls may become pregnant, making it harder for them to reintegrate into their communities.
UNICEF's Manuel Fontaine says demobilization takes time and money. He says the children must first be found, and then removed from their government or rebel units. Then, resources are needed to help them rebuild their lives. That involves providing schools, vocational training and health care.
"You do not want to stigmatize them and individualize them. They are basically going back to communities where there are a lot of other children, many of whom have suffered from consequences of war, even if they were not recruited. So, you are trying to build services in those communities that are broad services, that would be made available to all those children," Mr. Fontaine said.
Mr. Fontaine says, as part of various peace packages in the Great Lakes region, the World Bank and other donors are providing $500 million to help demobilize children. He says, unfortunately, the needed government institutions are not yet in place in some countries to move the process ahead quickly enough. He says that's why UNICEF is pressing to see such structures develop, so that children can get back home and start to lead normal lives once again.