What is the current situation regarding the use of child soldiers in West Africa? How can Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes reach all children who need them? This report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (the Coalition) surveys DDR projects carried out in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
West Africa is one of the regions in the world worst affected by the practice of child soldier recruitment. According to the Coalition’s estimates over 8000 children were still fighting in the region in 2005, with 20000 involved in DDR programmes or waiting to be demobilised. Many children are left outside official DDR programmes. This can be due to technical pressure to narrow the definition of ‘child soldier’ by implementing agencies. The Cape Town Principles define ‘child soldiers’ as including girls recruited for sex and forced marriage, and children pressed into support roles, as well as children who bear arms. Some agencies favour narrowing this definition to encompass only ex-combatants. This enables better control of the disarmament process and prioritisation of the security components of demobilisation. However, this approach leaves a subtantial number of children outside of DDR programmes and ignores crucial longer-term socioeconomic aspects or reintegration.
Even if the Cape Town Principles are utilised, vulnerable groups of children can be missed by DDR through lack of access. These groups include:
- Former girl soldiers had poor access to services and opportunities offered to boy soldiers. Girls feared stigmatism as a result of lengthy processes or were simply unaware of their entitlement to participate.
- Older children age between 15 and 18 years face added difficulties in the transition to adult life as a result of their experiences. They often face additional pressure as heads of households.
- Young adults aged between 19 to 23 years. Most DDR programmes stipulate beneficiaries must be under 18. However, young adults have often joined fighting forces when they were children and have needs similar to adolescents.
- Foreign children, children who leave armed groups through informal demobilisation, and child refugees are especially at risk of re-recruitment into neighbouring conflicts or being trafficked into exploitative labour.
Ensuring DDR programmes reach all children who need them requires international agencies and governments to commit to the child soldier definition of the Cape Town Principles. This application must be made compulsory in peace accords and in formal DDR processes. Lessons learned in Sierra Leone and Liberia should be applied to meet the needs of former girl soldiers. Flexibility in funding and programming is necessary to target interventions for other vulnerable groups identified in the study. Programmes should focus on the prevention of re-recruitment. Other policy recommendations include:
- Limiting direct intervention in favour of community approaches. Communities must be engaged in DDR at all stages. Programmes must be designed and implemented so they do not unintentionally work against children’s integration into the community.
- Stakeholders should collaborate through sharing information and resources to avoid overlaps.
- Training on children’s rights and child protection for members of armed forces, law enforcement, and peacekeeping forces.
- Massive investment in education is needed in all the countries of the region. There is a general consensus that that education is central to the prevention, release, and reintegration of child soldiers.