Joining with the humanitarian organizations, community volunteers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have taken on the challenging task of demobilizing thousands of former child soldiers and child who have faced the traumas of war.
According to UNICEF, at least 33,000 children have been demobilized from armed forces or groups since 2004. Many end up in places like the Centre of Transit and Orientation (CTO) in South Kivu’s provincial capital. The centre currently holds 101 children between the ages of 11 and 17.
According to Cornelia Walther, UNICEF’s chief of communication in the DRC, "Children are the first to suffer from the burden of conflict; they are caught up in violence as victims of sexual assaults; they lose their families and homes as a consequence of constant migration and they are involved in combat as perpetrators of the conflict."
The CTO is managed by a local association called Bureau des Volontaires pour l'Enfance et la Sante (BVES), which has helped to demobilize more than 2,500 children since 2002.
At CTO, the children and youth have formal classes, peer-to-peer group discussions and career counselling on their options after the centre.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also works in the area to help trace the families of demobilized children. They also help by providing medical support.
Although such programming gains a lot of international support, the local community has also stepped up to help their children in any way that they can. A local network of 34 foster families hosts youth close to their homes in remote areas of the province, and community volunteers regularly monitor the reintegration process.
One of the biggest challenges to demobilizing children and stopping the use of children by armed groups in the first place is the fact that irregular birth registration exists across the country.
A 2010 UNICEF survey indicates that less than one in three Congolese children has a birth certificate.
Murhabazi Namegabe, director of BVES in Bukavu, stated that the root of the problem was that "Administratively, these children do not exist. How do you prove to a commander that his soldier is a minor, if even the child itself does not know his age?"
Many problems in returning home still exist as well. Namegabe stated that such children returning home faced the likelihood of being enrolled in armed groups again, and that "there are children who do not want to return home because they are ashamed of what they have done; and finally there are families who refuse to take their children back - because they are afraid of what they have become."
It has been found that the situation for girls associated with armed groups is especially dire as they suffer from trauma, most of them having been raped and sometimes made pregnant.
Rohanne Rosine, CTO's director for the protection of girls, said: "The poverty of families is a big problem. Before they take back their daughters they request food or money, because they have too many starving mouths at home."