Global Initiative to Support Parents (GISP) | Supporting Children and Caregivers Must Go Hand-in-Hand this Red Hand Day
Photo credit: International Rescue Committee

 

February 12 is International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers or Red Hand Day. The international community comes together to raise awareness about the plight of children who are recruited for armed conflicts and to demand an end to recruitment and to support child soldiers and their families.

Child recruitment is one of the six grave violations against children and a violation under international human rights law and criminal law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the world’s most ratified human rights treaty, and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict have set standards on child rights and child recruitment. The global community has come together over the years to set principles and guidelines on preventing child recruitment and on demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of children associated with armed forces or groups. The Paris Principles Handbook was released in 2022 to put these principles into practice. Yet over 100,000 children are currently recruited and used by parties to conflict around the globe.

Why is child recruitment still a humanitarian and peace challenge after decades of work and so many legal frameworks to prevent and respond to the abuse?

Through our work and research across conflict contexts such as the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Yemen, and Syria, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) found that the relationship between caregivers and children plays a critical role in both preventing child recruitment altogether and the successful reintegration of children after affiliation with armed groups.

Across contexts, children and adults have reported that the caregiving environment affects the decisions children make. Insecure, violent, or abusive environments can act as “push factors” for children to be manipulated into joining armed groups. This can also be the case when traditional caregiving roles are reversed and a child must care for an ill or injured adult, or when children assume the responsibility of caring for other children. One adolescent girl we worked with had to make alcohol from cassava flour to sell to the armed group “to take care of [her] grandmother and little brothers who are [her] dependents” after her home was burned down. This type of adult responsibility exposes children to harm and risk of recruitment. In cases where parents have been killed—a frequent reality in conflict settings—the absence of a parent or caregiver can put children at risk. One young woman reported that, after their mother died, her younger sister was placed into the care of family members who abused her. “As a child, since she had not been able to bear abuse in the home such as insults and physical beating, she fled and joined an armed group. While there, she had been subjected to forced labor and was mocked and reminded her that her mother had died,” she said of her younger sister.

“(The situation at home) was negative…If they are pouring out abuse on you, you decide to go wandering.”

Adolescent girl

“It is painful and sorrowful. We are doing our best to provide for them so that they cannot return to the armed groups.”

Parent

The consequences of child recruitment are not only felt by the children themselves. Children’s caregivers often experience stigma and are treated as outcasts by their communities for having children who are or were associated with armed groups. Support to caregivers is therefore critical to their mental health to mitigate stigma and stress.

When children are released from recruitment and safely return home, a stable caregiving environment is crucial to ensure they feel supported and receive the care and services required to reintegrate and recover. Our research and programming have shown that supporting caregivers plays a huge role in ensuring a supportive environment for children so they can thrive and will not be re-recruited.

IRC’s findings point to the need to invest in caregiving that positively supports the growth, development, safety, and well-being of children as a primary protective factor and a pathway to prevent child recruitment across all contexts. This is one of the reasons that—on top of implementing specific programming like Growing Strong Together, IRC recently partnered with actors across the humanitarian child protection system to create and release the Caregiving in Adversity Framework. This Framework establishes a clear and common understanding of caregiving in humanitarian crises, providing programmatic, advocacy, and research directions to improve both caregiver and child well-being. Ultimately, investments in caregiving can increase the protection of children from recruitment into armed groups.

On this Red Hand Day, we must remember that if the conditions for positive caregiving are fostered, and caregivers are better able to fulfill their care responsibilities, we have a better chance of ending child recruitment. And so, we must do everything to prevent child recruitment by increasing investments in both children and caregivers.

By Yvonne Agengo, Senior Technical Advisory for Child Protection, International Rescue Committee (IRC).