Too often, initiatives aimed at helping returning child soldiers fail to listen to what the boys and girls say they want and need to reintegrate.
The latest UN Report on Children and Armed Conflict names 56 non-state armed groups and seven state armed forces as guilty of recruiting children. It is impossible to quantify the number of child recruits worldwide today, but they number in the tens of thousands if not the hundreds of thousands.
In 2017, UNICEF found more than 3,000 cases of child recruitment in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In South Sudan, at least 19,000 under-18s are part of the continuing conflict. And in the Middle East and North Africa, recruitment levels were found to have doubled in the course of a year.
These children often endure horrific experiences, bear witness to shocking violence, and suffer atrocious sexual and physical abuse by their captors. But even if they are freed, they continue to face many obstacles on returning home.
They may be free from the sight of death or the prospect of daily rape. But boys and girls who re-enter their communities have changed indelibly. And often so too have community perceptions of them.
During our research in the DRC, we interviewed 150 girls formerly associated with armed groups. Nearly all of them experienced some level of discrimination by their communities when they returned.
Boys may also suffer exclusion and mistrust, but girls are shunned by their peers and families as a matter of course. This often stems from their "having known men". Because they have been sexually abused, girls are diminished in the eyes of their community and seen as having lost their social value.
Seamstresses and mechanics
Countless organisations around the world work to help children reintegrate back home. These are undoubtedly well-meaning. But many programmes are too focused on putting children into employment or training without considering their individual needs.
Vocational training and income-generating activities - "jobs" in non-NGO jargon - are regularly the centrepiece of assistance. Seamstress training and hairdressing classes are common initiatives for girls, carpentry and mechanics for boys. But in small rural Congolese towns, there is little demand for another ten mechanics or seamstresses.
Of the 150 girls we interviewed, 70 had received some form of reintegration support. This ranged from ad hoc assistance such as the provision of clothes or kitchen utensils, to the payment of school fees, but most were channelled into work. Almost 60% were offered small business ventures or vocational trainings. But most of these failed, with less than one-third managing to turn a profit from their initiatives.
"I have completed my training and I am a seamstress," said one 17-year-old girl. "But I only earn CFCA 2,000 [about $2 at the time] a week because there are so few clients."
Some reported that their sewing machines broke quickly and that their nominal income made repairs impossible. Others ended up having to skip their training to help family members in the field.
According to the interviewees, initiatives rarely included teaching of vital business skills. Most also ran on the assumption that the girls were fully literate, which they were not in most cases. Meanwhile, many training programmes were cut short after the organisation ran out of funds.
Lastly, the initiatives reported did not strengthen existing activities that contribute to the local economy, such as agriculture and animal husbandry. In rural areas, agriculture is by far the most common occupation, yet still holds huge unlocked potential. For example, children working with local agronomists to improve farming productivity would benefit the whole community.
This is not to say there are not examples of similar initiatives working successfully. But too regularly, they overlook the critical element: speaking with participants themselves to understand the context in which they live.
"I wanted to go back to school so I asked them [the NGO], but I was told there was no budget for that so they put me in a tailoring course," another girl explained.
Being accepted back into the community
In reintegration programmes, the primary needs of girls have often been overlooked or misunderstood. Rather than economic activity, the main problem most report facing is rejection and exclusion from community life. The main objective for any reintegration assistance must therefore be to promote acceptance.
This can often be achieved through simple, practical actions. Having trusted community members speak to children and listen to their experiences - some girls who received such visits said they would have returned to the bush without them - will break their isolation and relieve their pain. Similarly, if a respected community member, especially a religious leader, invites the child to a ceremony or asks for her help in conducting a simple task, this attention will help change how she is perceived by the rest of the community.
For most though, attending school was the surest way to be accepted and find their place back home. "If we could go to school, the community would be nicer to us, we would get some consideration. That would help a lot," said an 18-year-old girl in Nyiragongo.
Listening to what the girls say has informed the next steps in Child Soldiers International's work in DRC. Since 2016 we have helped 177 former girl soldiers return to education and launched a Practical Guide in local languages to help organisations and communities better respond to the needs of girls.
On International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers and at a time when child recruitment persists, it is imperative that we work not only to free children from conflict but provide the most appropriate and effective support when they return home.