Tens of thousands of children are estimated to be actively participating in combat situations or serving as support personnel for armed groups in at least 15 conflicts around the world (UNICEF, 2012).

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Children may be enrolled through abduction, coercion or forced recruitment (Landau, 2007), and forced to undertake a variety of roles in armed groups, from serving as active combatants to acting as porters or sexual slaves.

Military leaders have expressed a preference for younger recruits as “they are less likely to question orders from adults and are more likely to be fearless, as they do not appreciate the dangers they face” (Amnesty International, 1998, p. 39). Youth associated with armed groups face prolonged exposure to violence, including being forced to kill or harm others and undergoing repeated personal victimization, including sexual violence (Betancourt, Brennan, Rubin-Smith, Fitzmaurice, & Gilman, 2010). Underage combatants are robbed of many normal opportunities for physical, emotional and intellectual development, both as individuals and as members of communities.

The use of underage combatants was widespread in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in both the First Congo War (1996-1997) and the Second Congo War (1998-2003). When the Global and Inclusive Agreement on Transition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo formally ended hostilities in 2003, DRC had approximately 30,000 underage combatants awaiting demobilization (Child Soldiers Global Report, 2008). This made it one of the countries with the highest numbers of underage combatants in the world at the time (Amnesty International, 2003).

The United Nations (U.N.) has found that “the recruitment of children is directly related to active conflict, with new outbreaks of hostilities typically resulting in higher trends in child recruitment” (U.N. Security Council, 2008, p. 5). The recent aggression by the rebel group M23 rebel group raises new concerns about the recruitment of underage combatants as hostilities intensify in eastern DRC. Thousands of people in North Kivu have fled their homes to escape the recent upsurge in violence and, as of August 2013, as many as 2,000 underage combatants were active in the conflict (UNICEF, 2013). These reports highlight the fact that abduction and recruitment of underage combatants are ongoing in eastern DRC. The lessons learned from past efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate underage combatants will be vital to address these new security threats.

Despite increasing attention to the scope and importance of child soldiering globally, there is still limited systematic research on the successes and challenges of reintegration programming for former underage combatants. While the importance of undertaking reintegration programming has been recognized as an important step for both reintegrating individuals into communities and promoting peace and security at a societal level, significant gaps in understanding how to implement sustainable and successful reintegration programming remain. This project uses DRC as a case study to examine the community experiences and attitudes around Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR[3]) programming to generate lessons learned for improving future programming for former underage combatants and at-risk youth.



The goal of the work is to use lessons learned from past reintegration processes to improve future programming for former underage combatants and youth at-risk for joining armed groups.


This project represents a collaboration between Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), as well as six Congolese community-based partners: Appui à la Communication Interculturelle et à l’Autopromotion Rurale (ACIAR); Association des Jeunes pour le Développement Intégré-Kalundu (Ajedika); Caritas Bunia; Education et Encadrement des Traumatisés de Nyiragongo (ETN); Groupe d’Actions et d’Appui pour un Développement Endogène (GRAADE); Projet de Réinsertion des Enfants Ex-combattants et Autres Vulnerable - Hope in action (PREV-HIA). The goal of the work is to use lessons learned from past reintegration processes to improve future programming for former underage combatants and youth at-risk for joining armed groups. The community-based participatory research approach engaged partner communities and collaborating organizations in contributing fully to all aspects of the research process. This project was undertaken in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and the district of Ituri in Orientale Province. Local partner organizations worked alongside ECI and HHI to collaboratively undertake research that examined the experiences of former underage combatants and communities with conflict and reintegration processes.

This study triangulated information by applying a range of methods and speaking with multiple groups affected by the process of reintegrating former underage combatants. The research was conducted using an iterative approach, with visual methodologies informing the design of subsequent qualitative research. The design of this report mimics that structure by first presenting results of the visual work and then presenting the results of the focus groups. Service providers, community-based organizations (CBO), local leaders, families of former underage combatants and the combatants themselves all narrated their conflict and reintegration experiences. The project also incorporated reflections from practitioners and policymakers involved in reintegration programming on the strengths and limitations of DDR programming.

This report does not evaluate interventions of international and national humanitarian actors, as reintegration programming varied widely across time and geographical areas. Rather, this research documented the experiences and attitudes of former underage combatants in eastern DRC who went through the reintegration process, the families and communities who received them and the organizations that funded and implemented reintegration programming. The report proposes recommendations based on their collective experiences with the reintegration process and their perceptions of the current situation.



While problems and challenges were manifold, participants also identified ways to improve reintegration programming and policy related to underage combatants in eastern DRC.


Findings from this work emphasize the complicated nature of reintegration programming in a context defined by decades-long conflict. Research participants described the dynamics at play in their communities. While problems and challenges were manifold, participants also identified ways to improve reintegration programming and policy related to underage combatants in eastern DRC.

Community members and former underage combatants spoke of the importance of building participatory and context-appropriate reintegration programs. These programs should provide not only training and marketable professional skills, but should also impart basic communication, stress-coping and conflict-resolution skills to both former combatants and their families. Reintegration is a long-term process that must fully engage former combatants, their families and their communities in the design and implementation of programs. At its best, this process can be seen as an opportunity to help communities collectively heal and critically examine the ways they choose to rebuild.

Hardships associated with war contributed directly to youth enrollment in armed groups. Recruitment can take many different forms, indicating the need for programs that better identify children and adolescents at risk for enrollment into armed groups.

Former underage combatants spoke in detail about the factors leading to their recruitment and abduction.

Males and females both described being abducted by armed groups, but with gendered differences in their experiences.

For males, abduction often occurred in the course of daily activities, such as playing or going to school. Females instead described risk factors for abduction, which included being orphaned, separated from their family or having to walk to remote places to perform daily chores, such as working in the field or fetching water.

While abduction for forced labor was one of the most commonly cited ways that boys and girls became underage combatants, there were also other reasons that youth became associated with armed groups.

Understanding and addressing these reasons through educational programming, and providing opportunities for alternate activities is critical. Former underage combatants described joining to avoid exploitation by armed groups; to protect or avenge family members affected by the war; or because they felt that, in the face of grinding poverty and few educational or employment opportunities, joining an armed group was the best of the available options. Some former underage combatants even sought out military life in order to access a surrogate family structure.

Once in armed groups, underage combatants were relegated to the lowest rank – that of kadogo, or “little ones.” In this role, they were last in line for goods or material comforts. At this rank, they also faced severe physical punishment and abuse.

The results were poor health and high mortality. Faced with chronic malnutrition and inadequate access to food, nearly all former underage combatants who participated in the research described their time in the militia as one of near starvation and physical misery. They spoke of a feeling of deep dehumanization and described being treated as slaves or animals.

Girls and young women said they were forced to fulfill dual roles as both combatants and sex slaves.

In addition to the abuse, neglect and intimidation common to all underage combatants, female underage combatants also experienced sexual abuse and cited unintended pregnancies in the forest as one of the greatest dangers they faced. If women survived childbirth, they faced the distress of not knowing the father of their children and were left with no social support structure and no husband to help provide for them.

Widely varying exposure to and experiences with reintegration programming suggested that efforts varied greatly throughout eastern DRC and were unevenly implemented.

Those who did participate in DDR programs articulated frustration with false promises and inadequate support. Both former underage combatants and community members recognized that combatants undergo behavior changes and psychological trauma during their time in armed groups.

Community members expressed a mix of sympathy for, and distrust of, former underage combatants, noting that they could act as a destabilizing force in civilian contexts.

Civilians often regarded former underage combatants as volatile and believed they brought antisocial behavior into already fragile communities. Community members stated that former underage combatants need psychological services as well as material assistance in order to be able to fully reintegrate.

Former underage combatants were aware of the mistrust they faced from community members, and noted that one of the greatest obstacles to reintegration was the social stigma they encountered. These individuals described how, once returned, they were seen as criminals and blamed for all the wrongdoing in their neighborhoods. Former underage combatants also spoke about the injustice of having “missed out” on the civilian lives they left when they entered armed groups. During reintegration, former underage combatants described seeing their peers with jobs, families and an education, and felt that they had no avenues for pursuing the same opportunities.

Becoming a participating member of the community – either through employment or education – was listed as critical. Finding a functioning role in society had both practical importance and also served as a way to rebuild a sense of dignity, agency and social belonging.

Association with armed groups has profound and long-term mental health consequences. Former underage combatants described suffering from a range of mental health symptoms and noted that they often lacked the communication and social skills to seek the social support they need. Successful reintegration requires an ability to negotiate job prospects and consistently pursue education opportunities that will ultimately lead to sustainable income. Former underage combatants, who generally had no decision-making power and no experience of working cooperatively, were not able to reintegrate seamlessly into communities.

Reintegration programs must not only provide material assistance but also impart basic skills related to conflict negotiation, communication and basic stress reduction.



1. Provide Comprehensive Reintegration Programming

2. Improve Access to Mental Health Services

3. Promote Community and Family Involvement in Reintegration

4. Build Capacity of Local Organizations

5. Coordinate Funding Mechanisms

6. Determine Successful Programmatic Models through Monitoring and Evaluation

7. Undertake Security Sector Reform

8. Focus on Prevention

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1. Provide Comprehensive Reintegration Programming:

Programming for the reintegration of former underage combatants should be holistic and include professional skills training, literacy and education opportunities, mental health and/or psychosocial support mechanisms and community engagement throughout the process. Referral structures should be in place so that organizations with different areas of expertise can coordinate their efforts. Careful case management of individual beneficiaries is vital to ensuring each former underage combatant is able to access necessary services as effectively as possible.

2. Improve Access to Mental Health Services:

Upon reintegration, former underage combatants confront the severe psychological effects of their experiences while seeking to re-establish themselves in their communities. Due to the short-term nature of funding and limited human resources, mental health services and psychosocial programming were limited or non-existent. International funders with expertise in mental health should invest in the training of capable local organizations to undertake basic mental health care.

3. Promote Community and Family Involvement in Reintegration:

Communities and families play an essential role in ensuring successful reintegration. Programming should engage community leaders, religious leaders and educators in the dissemination of professionally developed information that shares how experiences in an armed group psychologically affect former combatants and how family, friends and others in the community can contribute to reintegration and reconciliation efforts. Reintegration programming also needs to engage with communities to offer practical assistance to former underage combatants. This can take the form of business owners providing internships or vocational training, educators providing tutoring or religious leaders offering guidance. Counseling and mediation services are often needed to help estranged family members restablish healthy relationships. Families have the potential to positively influence former underage combatants and ease their transition to civilian life. Conversely, families that are not brought into reintegration programming as stakeholders can act as stressors on former combatants.

4. Build Capacity of Local Organizations:

The quality of services provided by local organizations was often compromised for the sake of quantity because local organizations are frequently contracted to implement short-term reintegration programming and required to reintegrate a specific number of former underage combatants in a restricted time period. Local organizations did not always have access to the professional skills required for technical interventions, such as mental health or vocational training. International funders should invest in building the technical capacity of these organizations to implement more complex, long-term programming. Investing in the professional capacity of Congolese institutions, such as universities, to provide expertise to local organizations would increase the potential for sustainable, prevention-based programs that serve at-risk youth.

5. Coordinate Funding Mechanisms:

Former underage combatants’ widely varied exposure to reintegration programs reveals the disconnects in reintegration programming. The large range of reintegration programs and “packages” created conflict between community members and beneficiaries as well as among beneficiaries. The difficulties coordinating government actors, international funders and international and national implementers were noted as a barrier to effective reintegration. Working in concert and adhering to a universal strategy agreed upon by all stakeholders that incorporates measurable success metrics would improve the efficacy of interventions and allow for better measurement of impact and best practices.

6. Determine Successful Programmatic Models through Monitoring and Evaluation:

Monitoring and evaluation were described as among the weakest areas of reintegration programming. Objectives and specific indicators were not identified or agreed upon by stakeholders, and funding structures did not allow for long-term follow up of beneficiaries. These factors make it almost impossible to establish the long-term impact of programs. The focus on a “quickly demobilize and transfer” strategy without adequate attention to tracking social impact resulted in interventions that could not be evaluated over the long term. Reintegration programming should not be designed as a short-term intervention, but instead as a long-term investment, with strong case management and established metrics that can be used to measure success.

7. Undertake Security Sector Reform:

The continued proliferation of armed groups in eastern DRC poses a significant risk to communities. At the time of the publication of this report, communities noted that recruitment of underage combatants into non-state armed groups was active and on-going, particularly as a result of clashes between M23, Raia Mutomboke and FARDC. The DRC government should prioritize reform of its security sector to ensure police, military and judicial systems are sufficiently organized, resourced and trained to respond to security threats. Such systems are critical to long-term reintegration success. Security sector reform would provide the local and regional security through which the country’s other development challenges could be addressed. International support for security sector reform should be considered a priority for donor countries, and coordinated through an agreed upon framework.

8. Focus on Prevention:

Programming for youth at risk of joining armed groups is critical. As noted above, ongoing insecurity and hardships associated with conflict and poverty contribute directly to underage enrollment in armed groups. Professional skills training that is relevant to the needs of local markets and buttressed with education opportunities will help address the underlying factors which make children and youth vulnerable to recruitment and abduction into armed groups. International funders should build the lasting capacity of local Congolese organizations to invest in these at-risk populations. A longer-term view of the risk factors associated with underage combatants will ensure that programming is preventative, instead of reactionary.

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[1] M23 is the March 23 Movement – in French: Mouvement du 23-Mars. The armed group, which largely operates in North Kivu, is named after the date the CNDP signed a peace agreement in 2009 with the Congolese government for the armed group to join the national armed forces. M23 was formed and became active in April 2012 because of frustration over poor conditions in the FARDC and the Congolese government’s failure to fully implement the 2009 peace agreement.

[2] Walikale 1.

43 UV001.

[3] This report refers to Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) processes. In newer documentation, this process is also called Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement (DDRRR). Since this report addresses reintegration, but not explicitly resettlement and repatriation processes, it uses the DDR acronym.