Despite efforts to end the use of child soldiers in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), youngsters are still being recruited within the ranks of both the rebels and the national army, with girls at particular risk of becoming sex slaves and less likely to be released, the United Nations Children`s Fund (UNICEF) said.
Used as combatants, labour and sex slaves, victims of months-long violence and rape, girls are all too rarely freed by the armed forces and groups, " UNICEF said in a news release in Goma, eastern DRC, marking the International Day against the use of Child Soldiers, noting that only 20 per cent of freed children under the agency`s care were girls.
While welcoming Government efforts, including the adoption of a law punishing recruiters of child soldiers with 20 years in prison, UNICEF noted that children were still being recruited or forced into the national army and armed groups.
In a message marking the Day, Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg, UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children, noted that nearly 250,000 child soldiers are serving in various conflicts around the world. Oblivious to danger in the face of death, easily impressionable and vulnerable, children are the expendable pawns in a deadly game orchestrated by adults, " she said.
Since 2004 more than 36,000 children in the DRC have been rescued from armed forces and groups, mostly in the east. In 2000, nearly 6,000 youngsters were freed, but only 1,222 of these were girls.
The place for children, whether boys or girls, is within the family, never within an armed group, " UNICEF Country Representative Pierette Vu Thi said. All children, and especially young girls, associated with armed forces and groups are traumatized by their experience and need very special care. It is vital that they return to a child`s life as quickly as possible. "
Earlier this week the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that the number of women raped in eastern DRC topped 8,000 last year. Although the mainly Rwandan ethnic Hutu rebel militia, known as the Forces dÃ©mocratiques de libÃ©ration du Rwanda (FDLR), which has been operating in the DRC since 1994 Rwandan genocide, are thought to be responsible for most rapes, members of the national army are also guilty of sexual abuse, it added.