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UNICEF Pressing to End Recruitment of Child Soldiers in Central Africa

Children soldiers in the Chadian Army on the battlefield in Hadjer Marfain, east of Chad, after a fight against rebels. (File Photo - 14 Dec 2006)

The United Nations Children's Fund is pressing to end the recruitment of child soldiers in Central Africa. The campaign also seeks to improve educational opportunities for former child soldiers.

UNICEF has officials from Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Niger, and the Central African Republic meeting in N'Djamena to discuss cross-border issues relating to the exploitation and forced recruitment of child soldiers.

The three-day conference is part of a campaign pressing for the ratification of an optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child relating to the protection of children in armed conflict.

Marzio Babille, who heads UNICEF operations in Chad, says there are one-quarter million children under the age of 18 involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide.

"It's a phenomenon, unfortunately, in countries that are fragile, conflict prone, or that exit conflict like Chad and Sudan," said Babille.

Babille says the goal of this conference in N'Djamena is to get all five governments to sign a binding agreement to stop the recruitment of children and create better opportunities for former child soldiers in school and in the workplace.

"UNICEF is working very hard together with governments to overcome the problem of demobilization and social reinsertion," added Babille.

UNICEF has helped demobilize more than 800 child soldiers in Chad over the last three years. Babille says one of the obstacles in Central Africa is that some children join conflicts willingly because there are few other opportunities at home. Being a combatant increases their stature in the community.

"Obviously having a child who is a combatant, a child who is a fighter is a sort of pride for the family and for the community," added Babille.

The sub-regional conference will hear testimony from former child soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.