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Poverty, insecurity driving girls into armed groups in DRC, warns NGO
Child Soldiers International is warning that girls in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are joining armed groups because they cannot afford to go to school. Once recruited, girls are often used as wives -- and sexually abused by commanders and other soldiers.
Children continue to be recruited and used by numerous armed groups in the DRC, amid the ongoing political crisis.
We tend to hear more about boy soldiers, but girls have also been recruited for the past 20 years.
Isabelle Guitard, who works with Child Soldiers International, said that even though a lot of these girls were abducted, when they were collecting water or fetching wood, the charity was shocked to realise that some of them are going of their own free will to join armed groups.
"About the third of the girls that we interviewed have actually chosen to join an armed group. And there were many reasons for this, but almost half of those girls told us that they had joined the local militia called the Mai-Mai after they could no longer pay their school fees, or their families couldn't pay the fees," Guitard told RFI.
"There were other reasons of course... there were many overlaping reasons. There was a need for protection against other armed groups, or a desire for revenge if they, or their family, had been victims of attacks from other armed groups. Many also were seeking a livelihood and income, and joining an armed group was a way to find that.
But although it may sound like a choice, when we present it like this, in reality, joining an armed group could have been their only option, really, to escape a life of utter poverty, and to protect themselves, their families or their communities."
Guitard said different initiatives have been trying to help girls who come back from these armed groups. But not much is done to prevent them joining the groups. There are many difficulties and challenges according to her, as for example, the lack of funding and the ongoing insecurity, within a country afflicted by so many different conflicts.
She said poverty, coupled with this constant insecurity, is usually what brings these girls to turn to armed groups.
Some of them are also strongly encouraged by their parents, she continued. "The parents thought that by providing their children to the local militia, it would afford the family some kind of protection against attacks and looting. That is because the country has been engulfed in political turmoil for such a long time."
"President Joseph Kabila clinging to power is the main issue," Vava Tampa, a political activist from a group called Save the Congo, told RFI.
Tampa said everything Kabila does - or doesn't - leads them to believe he is not planning to step down on December 19.
"Among other things, he has refused for an election to be organised, he has not said a single word on this issue, which is also why the tensions are raging and widening in Congo, so everyone believes that's an attempt to stay in power.
And if you take into account recent dialogue between Kabila and his former Lieutenants, who then became an opposition figures, that tells us how much Kabila is trying to cling to power. Now our message is, while Kabila is responsible for this crisis, and we acept that, the UN Security Council has a moral responsibility to act and to force Kabila to let go of power at the end of his mandate."
The UN Security Council has called this weekend for a "peaceful transition" to a "peaceful election".
But Claudia Seymour, a long-time Congo researcher for SOAS and the Graduate Institue in Geneva, said the country has had an "overload of international advice", making it harder to solve the crisis.
"This is a country in which lack of services and poverty bring young people to do all they can to survive, whatever that means, to pay for their food, schools, basic medical care. They don't have many options either: they might be engaging in sex work or joining an armed group. And this has been going on for years, it's not a new phenomenon at all," she told RFI.
"Clearly, the situation of young people in DRC is dire. So if young people had the opportunity, the Congolese in general had the opportunity, to get their voice heard, so that the government's contract with its citizens could actually be respected, and this is a Congolese-Congolese story, not a donor story, not a United Nations story, not an aid story, if the people could get into that, then their government will be held accountable to them, to provide them the services they need, we'd have a very different situation in the Congo today than we do."
However, Tampa believes the UN Security Council has to take action. Because he says some Congolese will not stop protesting, even if they're risking their lives in the process.
"The UN Security Council ought to take a huge and powerful stance on this issue because the Congolese people have shown over and over again that they will fight. If you go back to June 2015, when Kabila was trying to change the constitution, we saw thousands of Congolese people taking to the streets across the country. In Kinshasa, Goma, Katanga and so forth, dozens died and nonetheless, they still went to the streets. If you look at what happened last September, over 50 of them were killed, but still they went on to protest," Tampa said.
"And over the past four weeks, many of them, despite being arrested, harrassed, abused by security forces, they still continue to protest. And that tells us something: the Congolese people are determined to protect their constitution and to ensure that there is a peaceful transition of power. Now, Kabila is definitely gearing himself up, preparing to cling to power, whatever may, but we ought to do whatever we can to counter this."
Guitard says that to stop girls from joining armed groups, long term intervention is needed. The UN's MONUSCO mission though is helping on the ground.
She said that a large majority of the girls they spoke to, even those who chose to join, regret their decision, because as soon as they joined the group, regardless of what kind of group it was, they were immediately abused and their lives became a nightmare.
So more immediately, the government's priority should be to help children stay in school. She says this is really the only way to prevent them from joining armed groups.