The Central African Republic, long overshadowed by conflict in neighboring Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has made significant progress in recent weeks to address its child soldier crisis.
But youths in the poverty-stricken, landlocked country still remain vulnerable to armed recruitment, according to a recent report.
In June, the government secured a ceasefire with the last remaining rebel holdout from its civil war, which officially ended in 2008. The Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace agreed to participate in the disarmament, demobilization, and social reintegration (DDR) of the group's soldiers, including children.
But a joint report by Watchlist International and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reveals that children, some as young as 12, are still active in the country's self-defense militias.
"There are more than 2,000 children today in self-defense militias, more than in the rebel groups," Laura Perez, IDMC's country analyst for CAR and author of the report, told MediaGlobal. "Only legitimate armed groups are part of the DDR process and the peace agreement. Self-defense militias have not signed."
These self-defense groups, formed by locals to protect their communities from bandits, gangs, and other border-crossing nomads, fill the void left by an inadequate national army. By some estimates, there are only 5,000-7,000 troops in the Central African Armed Forces, and CAR, roughly the size of France, shares a porous 3,200-mile border with six countries.
"The government supports self-defense militias, mostly moral support," Perez added.
According to the report, while the government does not fund the militias or furnish them with arms, it does provide ammunition for their homemade weapons, name badges and titles for their members, and supplies for night patrols such as flashlights and coffee. In turn, militia members, often parents and their children, develop a distinct pride in being able to protect their communities.
"The only answer is a well-trained, well-equipped, well-paid, well-disciplined army," Belgium's ambassador to the United Nations and chair of the Peacebuilding Commission for the Central African Republic, Jan Grauls, told MediaGlobal. "This is the priority of our commission. If we manage to create a republican army, which is of service to the population, we will also be able to make these self-defense groups, particularly the presence of children in them, disappear."
Central Africans have suffered from a severe lack of security for years. Civil war, conflict in bordering countries, food scarcity, a collapsed economy, and limited access to quality healthcare and education has put acute pressure on the country's five million citizens. Last year, CAR ranked 159 out of 169 countries in the UN's annual Human Development Index.
Attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army, the marauding rebel group that has terrorized populations in Uganda, Sudan, DRC, and CAR for decades, have only compounded the country's child soldier crisis. The Lord's Resistance Army continues to cross into southeast CAR to abduct children for its ranks.
In an interview with MediaGlobal, CAR's ambassador to the UN, Charles-Armel Doubane, acknowledged these problems, including children in self-defense militias. He said the safety and security of citizens must be the top priority of every government but also expressed disappointment that CAR does not receive as much international attention as other countries.
"Central African Republic has a problem with aid," Doubane said. "The country is not DRC, not Somalia, and we have to explain to the international community that this country has many problems that other countries have."
CAR has long been an aid orphan, in fact, but the government's presentation of a solid development plan during a meeting of its international partners in Brussels last month has helped strengthen support for the country. According to Grauls, aid will increase if the government continues to eliminate political corruption, enforce the rule of law, and protect its population.
"There's a commitment to bring DDR to an end before the end of the year," Grauls said. "Together with a strong focus on Security Sector Reform, I think the future will be brighter. In terms of security, I expect the situation to change substantially in the coming months."
The consequences of ignoring the country's security issues could be devastating for CAR, particularly its youth. Self-defense militias have a history of evolving into full-fledged rebel groups. The Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD), which signed a peace agreement with CAR's government in 2008, began as a militia.
"While self-defense militias seem benign because they're just there to protect communities, it's very easy for them to become a rebel group," Perez said. "The demobilization of children from self-defense militias needs to be taken as seriously as from other groups. From a child's perspective, it's all the same."
For CAR, the damage inflicted upon its youth by so much violence and instability will take years to repair. It will also require the full weight and commitment of the government to maintain the country's tenuous peace, establish and fund youth reintegration programs, and lift the country and its people out of poverty.