As the struggle against Boko Haram continues in Nigeria and neighbouring Lake Chad basin countries; Cameroon, Niger and Chad, discussions surrounding how best to approach post-conflict reintegration is becoming increasingly important. While this protracted 9-year conflict has deeply impacted the lives of millions, it is paramount that adequate attention is afforded to the reintegration of children, whose livelihoods and childhood have been snatched from them, since Boko Haram took up arms in 2009, recruiting over 8,000 children. Statistics have shown that armed groups are increasingly recruiting children as a deliberate tactic, recognising their strategic value in the long-term as a means to control populations by raising future generations as loyal supporters.
In late July, UNICEF welcomed the release of yet another group of children who had been held by Nigerian state forces, after being cleared of ties with Boko Haram. The release of these 200 children, only a fraction of the 2,000 who have similarly been held by the state forces regarding suspicions of affiliations with the militants, has prompted questions on how to treat children who have been recruited both involuntarily and voluntarily. Involuntary means of recruitment have stemmed largely from kidnappings, with the group gaining international attention for its methods of kidnapping groups of girls from school. The notion of voluntary recruitment however, should be met with a degree of scepticism and understood in the context of a worn torn country. Children may simply join groups such as Boko Haram out of necessity. Perhaps to have a place to live or to add some structure and consistency to their lives. Regardless of how children become involved or associated with these groups, it is important that once these children find their way out of these situations, that the international community and the state can support them on the other end. Those released require social and psychological support to assist their reintegration into their communities. As do a further half a million children, who have felt the damage and destruction, both psychical and psychological of the nine years of war against Boko Haram, reports UNICEF. This however, it no easy task.
A report released by the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) on June 27 noted the varying roles children have played in the conflict. Ranging from foot soldiers, wives for the militants, cooks and cleaners, and horrifically as human bombs. Notably, over half of the 881 verified child casualties occurred as a result of suicide attacks. The psychological toll this would have on vulnerable involved and onlooking children is almost inconceivable to most. This, coupled with indoctrination of children who are either born into the conflict or know little but conflict means a reintegration plan must heavily address psychological, social and psycho-social factors specifically targeted towards children as research continues to reveal that they will experience the severest and the most enduring effects of political violence.
Children’s rights have been promoted and formalised through inter/national‐level legislation and humanitarian programmes and initiatives, alongside the near universal ratification of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989. Additionally, varying campaigns have attempted to address prevention of recruitment including; Children, Not Soldiers which was launched in 2014 and ended in 2016. This initiative of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and UNICEF, has boasted some success, namely in getting governments to criminalize recruitment of children and put in places measures to prevent the recruitment of children, as well as influencing countries to sign the Option Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, there is less boasting about the success of reintegration measures and action plans. While prevention is something to indeed focus on, the continuous release of child soldiers or those alleged to be, means a dual response is thus needed.
The 2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview, Nigeria reported that over 7,000 girls and women held captive by Boko Haram have been subjected to rape and forced marriage adding additional complexities surrounding their reintegration, particularly as many are also pregnant or have given birth as a result. This, UNICEF notes, adds additional barriers to their reintegration, including a reluctance from their families and communities to accept them upon return. Their return is additionally being perceived as a destabilising force, further dividing communities. The stigma that exists not only due to social and cultural norms surrounding sexual violence, but also regarding community fears surrounding the radicalisation of these young girls, is compounding community fears, and de-incentivising reintegration.
Fears and stigma also extend to boys associated with Boko Haram, who are commonly perceived as a threat by their communities, particularly those children born out of Boko Haram related sexual violence. An assessment carried out by UNICEF and the British Council-led consortium called the Nigeria-Stability and Reconciliation Programme, found the significant existence of obstacles facing boys associated with Boko Haram. It highlighted that the majority of communities held extreme negative perceptions and were unwilling to accept the return of these children. Beyond barriers related to fears and stigma, further hampering reintegration is their return to widespread poverty, where in many circumstances, communities and livelihoods are destroyed, infrastructure no longer exists and their families have been killed amidst the protracted conflict.
The existence of specialised reintegration programs for children associated with armed groups, remains extremely limited in Nigeria. As do conversations surrounding mental health more broadly, as the topic remains largely a taboo subject. As such fields of counselling, psychology and psychiatry are habitually under developed. In Borno State, where many children are being released out of Nigerian state forces control, there is only one institution able to provide this sort of psychological assistance, and only for a small number of children. Rehabilitation camps were announced by Nigerian Defence Headquarters in April 2016, which could assist up to 2,000 members (combatants) of Boko Haram who had surrendered under the Operation Safe Corridor initiative, however this measure overlooks the tailored and sustained needs of children and their further development.
While child welfare programs, health and mental health programs remain chronically underfunded, without community level conciliation and support, mass amounts of funding would not be satisfactory. The stigmatisation and marginalisation of returnees will limit the effectiveness of mental health facilities and programs, as the issue requires assistance to those beyond the individual child. Without a rounded approach, the stability of communities will remain fragile and may contribute to drivers for future recruitment.
The international community could play a constructive role in this realm. Education programs could be developed to provide community leaders with an understanding of the potential cyclical effects resulting from inadequate reintegration. Perhaps UNICEF could engage in enabling this, and discussions with communities could take place regarding the challenges to reintegration and the importance of tolerance and acceptance for returning children. Though it is questionable and even naïve to expect these discussions to change cultural views surrounding sexual violence, for example, they may be better informed through such a measure about the positive impact reintegration and acceptance has on reducing cycles of recruits for armed groups such as Boko Haram.
Importantly, UNICEF and international actors should only play supportive roles as community engagement is most effective when run by those drawn from the community. Additionally, UNICEF could consider partnering with Nigerian agencies related to health, women and children to provide services such as education on sexual and reproductive health, counselling, vocational training and other educational services. The Red Cross, UN Women and Médecins Sans Frontières could be useful in these measures also.
Recognising the destructive impact of the conflict, on schools, hospitals, community centres and other infrastructures that are conductive to the assistance of reintegration and rehabilitation, the international community should endeavour to provide funding to these areas. As of September 2017, UNICEF noted that around 1,400 schools were destroyed in Borno state alone, with the militants killing more than 2,295 teachers and displacing an additional 19,000. It must also be understood that many children will be returning to communities who have been directly impacted by the conflict, and may be living in poverty, undermining their ability to support returning children and assist in their reintegration. Education facilities are pivotal to a reintegration process. Recognising this, they have been one of the core targets of Boko Haram attacks.
Though this article discusses the situation in the context of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the conversation extends far beyond this. Currently, there are tens of thousands of child soldiers across the globe. UNICEF reports that in the past four years, around than 17,000 children have been recruited in South Sudan and close to 10,000 children have been recruited in the Republic of Central Africa. Between 2014 and 2015, there was a 100% increase in new child soldier recruits according to a United Nations report in 2017. It is clear, that although preventive measures surrounding the voluntary and involuntary recruitment of child soldiers and more broadly the protection of children’s rights have solid legal backing, as does the existence of a strong norm regarding the use of children in conflict, these have not been enough to reduce the prevalence of this growing trend. While they should continually be worked upon and reformed, in the meantime community and mental health services must receive adequate attention, to assist in stifling cycles of recruitment and perpetual violence. Children should be the last to blame for conflict and violence. Communities must recognise their vulnerability and work towards rehabilitation and reintegration with the support of the international actors who have a vested interest in addressing and combatting conditions related to terrorism and radicalisation.
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