THE voices of children must be heard if the cycle of violence in conflict-ravaged countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is to end, the children’s charity World Vision has said.
A new report, Will You Hear Us?, gives voice to the experiences of 100 children who have lived through the past two years of violence in the Kasai region of DRC. Twenty of them, aged between ten and 17, said that they had been recruited as child soldiers; 23 per cent had lost a parent or sibling through violence or through starvation and disease; and all but one had fled their homes at least once. Some children in the DRC have been forced to flee their homes ten times because of the cycle of violence.
Kasai was one of the wealthiest and most peaceful regions of DRC, but communal clashes broke out in August 2016, after Kamwina Nsapu, a traditional chief, called for a popular uprising with the aim of removing all state institutions and security forces from the region. Two months later, he was killed, and his followers — many of them conscripted child soldiers — have repeatedly targeted state institutions. More than 3000 people have been killed in the violence, and the conflict has been described as one of the worst child-protection crises in the world.
Nadine, aged 15, quoted in the report, said: “I was part of the militia, but fled when my parents and my sister were killed. When I am alone, I think of my family and cry. What makes me most afraid now is the army and corpses. I have seen too many of both.”
Some militias have forcibly recruited children as young as five, World Vision said.
The charity is calling on the UK Government to ensure that children have a prominent voice at the table during international discussions that affect their future.
World Vision’s UK technical policy lead, Erica Hall, said: “Children who have been displaced through conflict or violence already feel a bit lost — and, if we don’t listen to them, then they disappear further. Children are disproportionately affected in humanitarian and conflict situations, and this has a long-term impact on their lives. If they aren’t helped to rebuild their lives, then the cycles of violence will continue.”
NGOs have created structures, even in areas of conflict, where children’s voices can be heard. DRC has children’s councils and peace clubs, which provide children with a constructive focus for the future.
Ms Hall said that the participation of children in international forums needed to be “meaningful and appropriate”.
“We certainly would not talk to children who were not ready to do so. It’s about finding ways for them to engage, which can be very empowering for children.
“In global or intergovernmental meetings, children’s voices aren’t heard at the moment — even where there is a youth forum, such as at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, no one under 18 is allowed to take part. Yet it is disingenuous not to allow children to contribute. Children can put forward solutions to create change in their communities.”
Violence in DRC has affected health programmes that are trying to tackle another outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. Vaccinations had to be suspended after 21 people were killed in an attack by rebel forces in the city of Beni, where the World Health Organisation (WHO) had based its operation to control the outbreak. The WHO warned of a “perfect storm” of factors that could worsen the outbreak, in which, so far, an estimated 100 people have died and 150 have been infected, in North Kivu, in north-eastern DRC.