Protecting children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Interview with Dee Brillenburg-Wurth, the head of child protection at MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Can you describe your work?
I’m in charge of a team of about 30 child protection officers who monitor and report on child rights violations on a daily basis. The information they gather is analyzed and integrated into the statistics of the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism.

Statistics are essential, but it’s important to never forget that every single child we report on has his or her own story on his or her life before the violation happened, during the violation, and surviving after the violation. This information helps us understand the dynamics and patterns of violations, the perpetrators, their methodology. This helps us develop prevention activities. For example, the recruitment of children by armed groups remains a huge phenomenon. Analysis helps us understand how the different armed groups are operating so we can do targeted prevention activities, and engage with the leaders based on a sound knowledge of their modus operandi.

DRC children released from M23

Children released from an armed group in DR Congo.

There are many armed groups in Congo, around 40 to 45. When I engage with armed group commanders, I use the information we gather through the MRM as part of the advocacy. I have in some cases brought fact sheets showing several years of information about violations committed against children by the group under his command. I do this so that we can skip the “we don’t recruit children” discussion and go straight to: how can we help you get the children off your hands and reintegrated. The commanders are impressed and immediately take you seriously.

There has been substantial progress to address the recruitment of children by government forces in DRC.
Indeed, when we started working on the implementation of the Action Plan, some people told me the FARDC would never stop recruiting children.

I thought it was possible. Now we all know it’s possible.

The Government owns this Action Plan. They are extremely committed to its full implementation. There is a strong collaboration between them and the United Nations. Congo is a big country and there are ongoing recruitment campaigns for the FARDC. What is extraordinary is when there are doubts about the age of recruits, when they find children trying to enroll, the army calls us for support.

“We have changed how we look at children. We don’t recruit children anymore, it’s in our blood. The change is irreversible,” an army general told me recently. That gave me goosebumps.

Do you feel you now have a strong ally to reach our wider objective: ending the recruitment and use of children and all grave violations by all parties to conflict in DRC?

This is obviously a priority, and we still have a lot of work ahead of us. We are putting a lot of effort in prevention.

Everybody knows killing someone is a crime, but a big challenge we face is that most people still do not know that recruiting children is a crime.

With the Government, we agreed that we needed to spread the word. And so we reached out to famous people and role models to record songs, messages and raise awareness throughout the country on this issue. In the past few years, the campaign to stop child recruitment has been supported by pop star Werrason, the national football team -the Leopards- who won the African Cup and famous basketball players, such as Bismack Biyombo, who plays for the NBA. The national television network also launched a weekly television program on children and armed conflict.

In addition, the Government is allowing us to engage with armed groups on the protection of children. There are also sustained efforts by the Government to hold perpetrators of grave violations against children accountable. We see more arrest warrants issued, and the first trial for the recruitment of children under national law will start very soon.

So when people ask me now if I believe that ending the recruitment and use of children in Congo is possible. I tell them: Yes, it is possible.