Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict conducted from May 16 to 26 a field visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to follow up on the implementation of key activities with its national child protection partner.

During the last year, Watchlist has been providing technical and financial support in the implementation of a project aiming to engage self-defense militia groups to negotiate greater compliance with international norms on the protection of children. Watchlist’s partner benefits from longstanding relationships with community leaders and authorities who can offer entry points to the leadership of armed groups and open a dialogue.

At the early stages, the main goal of the engagement was to raise awareness and disseminate norms through dialogue and trainings on the protection of children. Knowledge and ownership of the norms was at first limited, but the exercise served to build confidence and created opportunities to persuade the armed groups to slowly commit to key protection principles.

On February 12, after months of discussions, Watchlist’s partner secured a formal commitment from one such group under the control of Major Patron BIKOTWA operating in the localité of Muhungu, Moyens Plateaux of Uvira territory in South Kivu. The act was witnessed by local leaders who have followed the process since the beginning and who will be in a position to monitor compliance and continue local dialogue with authorities as necessary.

While the project’s main focus was on prevention, direct engagement with the armed groups also allowed the identification of a number of children associated with the armed groups. After securing a commitment by the groups to hand over children to child protection actors, Watchlist’s partner coordinated two joint missions with actors involved in the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programming. These include the child protection section of MONUSCO, national nongovernmental organizations certified to conduct age verification and provide assistance to reintegration, as well as representative from the government.[1] Over the course of the project, a total of 52 children between 11 and 17 years old were separated and referred to service providers as a result of two joint missions.

As the government of the DRC is making significant progress towards ending the recruitment of children by the national armed forces through implementation of its action plan, the number of children still associated with armed groups remains alarming. The number and the variety of those groups represent a significant challenge, but it is becoming increasingly clear that local actors may have the space necessary to safely negotiate protection outcomes. While the separation of children already associated with groups remains important, the real challenge is to prevent recruitment in the first place. Recognizing engagement with armed groups as key to prevention efforts will constitute an important element of the effort to end recruitment and use in the DRC.

[1] In particular, missions were conducted with the Unité d’Exécution  du Programme National du Désarmement, Démobilisation et Réintégration (UEPNDDR/Uvira), a government institution responsible to coordinate DDR activities conducted by a variety of actors.