Mindanao,the southernmost island of the Philippines, has been the scene of a long-standing conflict between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the MILF, an armed group that has been fighting for greater autonomy for the Bangsamoro people and the creation of a Bangsamoro state. During this protracted conflict, characterized by alternating periods of hostilities and peace talks, children have been killed and injured. They have been forced to abandon their homes or displaced and have been associated with the MILF to support its military activities.

Since the last full-scale hostilities in 2008, steadfast progress has been made in the peace negotiations, including an effective cessation of hostilities in 2012, monitored by an international ceasefire monitoring team. In October 2012, the Government of the Philippines and the MILF signed a framework for a future peace agreement, paving the way for further discussions on the creation of a Bangsamoro homeland and the integration of the armed group in the security forces.

Different from the traditional concept of child soldiers, children in Mindanao are most often associated with the MILF through the social fabric of their community. Children are usually not formally recruited. In many cases, they are drawn into association with the MILF because they are encouraged to join by family members or because they live in poverty and working for the MILF may provide economic opportunities. Children often continue to live at home in their communities, sometimes still attending school. They are called in by the MILF periodically to perform auxiliary roles. Children act as sentries, messengers, look-outs or porters, and they maintain weapons.

While most of these children are not part of the formal military structure of the MILF and have no rank, some do receive military training. While the MILF has an estimated 11,000 fighters, it is not a standing army and their military rank-and-file live in their communities. As a result, MILF members are a constant feature in many Bangsamoro villages. There is no easy distinction between the military and civilian life spheres.

Each year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations describes the situation of children affected by armed conflict in a global report to the Security Council. This report lists armies and armed groups that recruit and use children. The MILF has been on the list for over 5 years. In August 2009, the armed group signed an action plan with the United Nations defining measures to take to halt and prevent the recruitment and use of children.

With the support of the United Nations, the MILF has since been in the process of implementing a number of concrete and time-bound activities outlined in the Action Plan, including raising awareness about child rights in the communities, training on child protection, the provision of educational and livelihood programs and accountability measures.

A little less than a year ago, the UN started supporting community networks in six conflict-affected Bangsamoro tribal areas to bring child protection issues at the heart of the villages.

These grass root child protection networks in barangays or villages draw from various segments of the community and bring together village elders, religious leaders, local Government officials, mothers and youth representatives to discuss child protection concerns, including school drop-out, forced labor, trafficking, prostitution and association of children with the MILF.

A “community organizer” convenes a meeting every two or three weeks to provide orientation sessions on specific issues for further dissemination to the community, and to discuss any challenges observed in the day-to-day interaction with the other community members. A number of trained “community volunteers” reach out to the community and raise awareness on child rights, and identify and respond to specific incidents. Children also receive orientation sessions and can further participate in the child protection network as “youth focal points”.

The main objective of these Community-Based Child Protection Networks, in relation to the Action Plan with the MILF on the recruitment and use of children, is to create greater awareness among the community members on the concept of association and the risks to which it may expose the children. Another objective is to prevent any further incidents through community mediation. The child protection networks may also function as a complaints or referral mechanism. The advantages of these child protection networks are in the ownership of the community and the effectiveness of its outreach to all community members. Challenges remain to ensure equal representation of different social groups within the community and how many child protection networks the United Nations and its partners can support in a region with thousands of villages.