By Ashley Dale
Children are often left out of the DDR process, especially girls due to gender bias and inequalities in places like the DRC. One challenge is that DDR processes are typically underfunded to begin with. This leaves little room for children in the process, who could be thought of as secondary actors in the conflict, even though many take up arms and actively fight. According to a report from Relief Web, 43 percent of all armed groups around the world use child soldiers with 90 percent of them actually seeing combat.
Another issue is that the DDR process starts with disarmament which acts as a measure of how many combatants need to be demobilized and reintegrated back into society. This process also acts as a measure of success of the DDR process – the more weapons collected, the more successful the DDR. However, not all children carry a weapon, especially girls, which leaves those children out of the DDR process altogether. According to the Relief Web report, only two percent of the female child soldiers in the DRC received any kind of benefits from the DDR process. The benefits they receive are minimal at best. They may get water, a small portion of food, a plastic sheet for shelter, maybe a ride home, and a small, one-time payment if any monetary compensation is given at all.
How could children be treated any differently when they are tasked with the same jobs and cast into the same roles as some of the adult combatants, and how does this relate to child soldiers who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)? It seems that armed groups see children as expendable. They are recruited to fight because they are vulnerable and impressionable, are easily controlled and manipulated, and are cheap to feed and care for. These factors leave them open to acts of SGBV during conflict. Their vulnerability and ability to be easily manipulated also puts them in a position where adult combatants can take advantage of them and force them to be perpetrators of SGBV against other children. This is used as a method of initiation and control, according to the Relief Web report. However, this should not exclude them from the DDR process. Children suffer physical, emotional, and psychological damage that is equivalent or even worse than that of adult combatants. Girl child soldiers are in an even worse position because of gender inequalities and issues only faced by girls such as unwanted pregnancies due to rape, physical trauma like fistulas, and only being thought of as victims of SGBV even though nearly half of girls in conflict serve as active combatants.
Children that are excluded from the DDR process are at a higher risk for reintegration back into the conflict, pose a greater security threat to the country, and are at risk of being cast out of their families and communities. Those children, including boys, who suffer SGBV during their time as child soldiers suffer an even greater physical, emotional, and psychological burden that puts them at even greater risk of the above. In my opinion, no DDR process should be considered a success when it leaves out the most vulnerable group that needs the most help and support – children, especially those who suffered SGBV during their time as a child soldier.
Another issue with DDR of child soldiers is the lack of support for those who enter into conflict as children but are adults by the time the disarmament process takes place. These now adults tend to be left out of the DDR process altogether. This comes back to a lack of funding of DDR processes in general. The money that is allotted for DDR goes to the three main processes that make up DDR, but are crafted for and first given to adult ex-combatants. Future DDR processes need to be designed with special needs groups like children in mind with specific steps addressing their unique needs. Since the newest and third installment of DDR in the DRC was just launched in May of this year, it’s too soon to tell how it will address child ex-combatants, especially those who have suffered SGBV or perpetrated it during the conflict.