Protection for child combatants fighting with rebel groups must be at the heart of any training given by EU troops to Malian forces, says World Vision UK.
Earlier today the EU announced a training mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) which is intended to help improve the military capacity of the Malian Armed Forces.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to recruitment into Militia groups as well as various forms of sexual violence, including forced marriage. They are therefore in urgent need of protection" said Chance Briggs, director of World Vision Mali
Earlier this week the United Nations warned of serious human rights violations in Mali including summary executions, rapes, acts of torture and the recruitment of child soldiers by rebel groups.
Justin Byworth, Chief Executive of World Vision UK, said: "We are calling on the UK government to take the lead and ensure child protection is built in alongside combat training. This is especially important when child combatants are captured. They must be dealt with according to International humanitarian law. It's important to work with Malian troops and the Malian legal system to ensure that all grave violations of the rights of civilians, especially those of children, are identified, prevented and stopped."
All rebel groups in Mali have recruited child combatants according to the United Nations. The exact number of child soldiers is unclear but children as young as 10 have been seen manning checkpoints. Children have also been seen conducting joint patrols in the name of militia groups.
While some children are given by their parents for religious reasons, the majority are attracted by promises of payment of up to 350,000 CFA ($697US).
Rebel groups are said to have also actively recruited children from religious schools. The UN report also stated fears that many children are trapped in these schools without adult protection because teachers have fled, leaving their pupils at risk of recruitment and kidnap by rebels.
EUTM Mali will provide military training as well as train and advise the Malian Armed Forces on command and control, logistics, human resources as well as on international humanitarian law, the protection of civilians and human rights.
In response to the announcement World Vision's EU Representative Marius Wanders said: "The EU MUST be seen to observe its commitments to child protection in line with the 2008 EU Guidelines and relevant Checklist on Children Affected by Armed Conflicts.
We also welcome today's announcement on appointing an EU Special Representative for Mali. We request that the door is left open for proper dialogue between the EU Special Representative and civil society groups and aid agencies operating on the ground in Mali. We sincerely hope the EU Special Representative will listen to our concerns and incorporate them. We know grave violations have taken place already. Mechanisms must now be put in place to prevent them."
UN investigators uncovered shocking amounts of alleged sexual violence, committed by all armed groups controlling the north. Medical sources reported that women often did not seek medical treatment after being raped, due to the fear of stigma.
Investigators also found evidence of rape as a tool of intimidation and torture. Women and girls as young as 12 had been subject to punitive acts of rape for non-compliance to the rebels orders, such as wearing conservative dress or a ban on women riding motorbikes.
Investigators spoke to one woman who had been raped by a rebel commander for two hours for failing to dress conservatively. Some groups had forced families to sell their daughters into temporary marriages.
Girls as young as 12 were 'married' to several men in rebel camps where they were gang-raped all night and then abandoned after a quick 'divorce'. The UN also collected multiple allegations of sexual violence against women and girls who had been detained in prison.