At least 17,500 children have been released from armed groups since 2017 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a UNICEF official in the country said on Thursday.
Speaking at a news briefing in the capital Kinshasa, UNICEF Representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Edouard Beigbeder said in 2021 alone, more than 3,300 children either escaped or were freed by armed groups.
He cited the Mai–Mai militia group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and the militiamen of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri, among the armed groups exploiting children.
Nearly 10,000 children have so far benefited from individual or collective reintegration programs into their families and communities, he said.
Often the children escaping from armed groups need different kinds of support depending on their exposure.
“These children have different traumas depending on their experience. Some were used in canteens, some were porters, others were among the members who committed violence, while some of them suffered sexual violence,” Beigbeder told reporters.
There has been considerable progress in the fight against the recruitment of child soldiers, according to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).
Beigbeder said support for the socio-economic and school reintegration of children removed from armed groups remains a challenge.
Without socio-economic reintegration, the children could easily return to the bush, he added.
The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) has even been removed from the United Nations blacklist of armies that recruit and use children.
The recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups are defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
A key challenge and priority of the UN is engagement with non-state actors to end and prevent grave violations against children.
The eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (North and South Kivu and Ituri) have faced endemic insecurity, which leaves children exposed to recruitment by non-state actors.
Non-state armed groups systematically constitute the vast majority of parties listed for grave violations against children, according to the UN.