Moving towards an African Solution to Protect Children
Nota bene: This piece was co-authored with Dr. Shelly Whitman, the Executive Director of the Child Soldiers Initiative.
Extreme violence against children affected by armed conflict is not only a humanitarian issue, but also a security concern with lasting implications. As children are forced into conflict, they become part of the ongoing cycle of violence and erode the potential for peace and long-term prosperity.
Today, the African Union (AU) faces a sobering reality in terms of the number of children affected by armed conflicts on the continent. This is particularly stark in relation to the ongoing use and recruitment of child soldiers. As of 2015, according to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, seven countries: Mali, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Somali, along with one region, Central Africa, feature the recruitment and use of child soldiers within Africa by either state or non-state armed groups—or both.
In this challenging environment, the efforts of child protection specialists and organizations are often underfunded and lack effective coordination within the wider protection mechanisms, such as UN efforts to protect children. As such, there exists a distinct need to build regional capacity to protect children.
This regional approach to child protection is particularly resonant within the corridors of the African Union. AU committees such as the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) and the AU’s Peace and Security Council, have made the protection of children a critical goal and these efforts should be applauded as steps in the right direction.
However, as the AU expands its capacity to develop and maintain its peacekeeping operations across the continent, there is also a great opportunity to put child protection into action as a critical step to advance peace on the continent.
To put this opportunity into action, The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative in a tripartite agreement with United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund and the AU, developed the first ever child protection advisor position for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). This novel partnership has produced an individual who has coordinated child protection efforts through a standard and sustainable way between AMISOM, UNSOM, and the Somali Country Task Force—an incredibly difficult challenge in one of the most fragile security environments that exists on the globe.
This position represents a critical first step in a larger regional framework that will strengthen and coordinate child protection efforts within each of the AU peacekeeping mission contexts across Africa. The aim is to have the positions link international, regional and local child protection efforts, blending both humanitarian and security interventions effectively. To further extend the reach of child protection beyond just AU peacekeeping contexts, child protection advisors for specific country contexts could coordinate within AU regional liaison offices.
In addition to the deployment of such AU child protection positions, there is a need to build national level training and doctrinal guidance on how to prevent the use of child soldiers from a security sector perspective. The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative has begun this critical work in troop contributing countries such as Sierra Leone, Uganda and now Rwanda. Military and police personnel need to understand why they should be concerned with preventing the use of children from not only a moral or legal imperative but from the perspective of security sector reform approaches.
The African continent, through lived experience and large youth populations, has the momentum to become world leaders on the prevention of the use of children as soldiers. This is coupled with a strong legal framework through the AU architecture and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child to protect children and cultural traditions that views the responsibility of raising a child as beyond the family but with the community as a whole.
Only through long-term solutions in response to the growing incidents of the six grave violations against children, particularly the use and recruitment of child soldiers, can an improved approach that strengthens child protection systems through the harmonization of policy and programs be possible. However, this requires collaboration with national governments and their security forces to create ownership of the processes to create change. The AU can assist this process by advocating for African solutions to address the protection of African children in ways that are meaningful and through strategic partnerships that build capacity and accountability. It is in the interest of all those who seek peace and stability overall to see the children of Africa protected from extreme violence.
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