Rebuilding After War

Youth affected by conflict benefit from international social work

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The prevailing image is eyes. On reports, websites, brochures--there they are, staring. Words like "vision" and "watch" crop up again and again, frequently in the names of organizations or their slogans. In one way, these images and words are inspirational, prompting action or at least attention. But they're also reminders of all the things the eyes--representing children and families all over the world affected by conflict--have seen. In Sierra Leone, they've seen over a decade of civil war, funded by blood diamonds. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they've seen year after year of life at camps for those displaced by the war. In northern Uganda, they've seen the Lord's Resistance Army kidnap so many children that proactive "night commuters" leave their rural homes at night to sleep in populated areas. In current conflicts and in wars of the past, in countries that span the globe, children have seen and lived horrors far beyond their comprehension.

SRSG Radhika Coomaraswamy visits a children's orientation center in Masisi, North Kivu, on an official visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in April 2009. The banner reads, "My place is in the family and not in the army: Give me a notebook, a pen and show me the way to school."

"People find it overwhelming to consider the sorts of experiences that children and families in war zones have had," says Theresa Betancourt, a professor and researcher at the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School for Public Health. "It pushes people out of their comfort zone to imagine the intense struggles. What I always remind people is what I find so important about this work, not just looking at it for all its tragedy, but the wonder of, how do so many people manage to do okay?"

Betancourt's recent research, including a forthcoming paper, has focused on what she calls the pathways to recovery that former child soldiers in Sierra Leone and northern Uganda take as they reintegrate into their communities. It requires thinking ecologically, "not just looking at the child, but thinking about who's around them, family influence and neighborhood influence," she says. "We see things like having a supportive family or an accepting community, having access to education--these pathways are important to help." Betancourt believes she's describing a universal truth with the idea of pathways for reintegration and recovery that can transcend violence, no matter what type. "That lesson is true in Sierra Leone and that lesson is true in inner-city Chicago," she says.

Learning these lessons about how to best help children affected by war is a collaborative effort. Several women-- working from the U.S. and abroad--talk here about their own experiences. Betancourt, the researcher, does field work in countries as they recover from conflict, learning from each generation of war-affected children how to help others who will come later. Radhika Coomaraswamy, a diplomat, travels to hot and cooling zones to make sure countries do right by their most vulnerable citizens. Robin Mama, a teacher, brings U.S. social work students up in the tradition of a global society, preparing them for careers around the corner or across the globe. These three women represent the circle of support for children affected by conflict. As more eyes turned to the international scene with a conflict track at September's international child abuse prevention congress, with the trial of child soldier Omar Khadr recently in the news, and with the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan each at a crossroads, these women want to make sure they keep the focus on children impacted by war.

Human Rights and Child Rights

This work--keeping families together, making sure they have the support they need to return to productive lives--is social work. "Social work has those skills that can be taken anywhere," says Robin S. Mama of Monmouth University. She teaches in the International and Community Development track of the master's of social work program; interested students can take internships in a handful of countries where the school has a long-term commitment. At Monmouth, all of the social work students--bachelor's and master's level, even those who won't go abroad--start the learning process by examining international treaties on human rights.

A Roma (gypsy) child finds herself on the side of a road in northern Italy, ironically wearing a shirt that proclaims, "Outsider." After fleeing the ethnic turmoil in Bosnia, her family is always on the move. Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department

"Our students start out with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Mama explains. "They're learning about all the human rights and all the various conventions and how they relate to social work practice." It's not just an abstract lesson, she says, as students are asked to examine their own work against these global measures. "They will talk about, 'Well, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, they say a child has to have X, Y, or Z,'" Mama relates. "And they're trying to use those to inform policies at their own agencies. 'If a child has a right to leisure, why are we not doing X or Y for them in this school?' ... They're challenging, in many instances, our own field agencies. 'But this doesn't follow what you would call human rights practice, so how can we change this?'"

Mama admits that at the beginning her students got mixed reactions from their field agency partners. But over the years, that's evolved--some agencies have let students speak to the board of directors, and some have changed policies and practice. "It's been rewarding," she says. Mama believes social work, while grounded in the philosophy of human rights, often doesn't use that language, although she thinks it's coming back.

The fact that the United States hasn't yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is beside the point for Mama and her colleagues. "It hasn't, I think, slowed anyone down in terms of trying to use the CRC. These are things we should still be working towards," she continues. "If the United States signs it, I think it would be wonderful, but I think we've just continued to try to teach the concepts."

But Mama wants to share more than just the concepts of the CRC. In the fall special issue of Child Welfare journal, she examines the practicality of the treaty and how its mandates can be realistically implemented. In further discussion, she explains what the CRC says about keeping children outside the influence of armed conflict and helping those who are affected by it. She says the CRC advises pro-viding basic services to children and families. "The CRC there is looking to try and provide some type of normalcy to children."

Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, visited Gulu, Uganda, to visit children orphaned by the violence perpetrated by the Lord's Resistance Army. Workers were trying to determine where this young boy was born. Photo by Timothy La Rose/United Nations

Normalcy means basic services like food, clothing, shelter, and health care, but it means one more thing: going to school. Even in war zones, parents want education for their children. The CRC packages education in with food, shelter, and health as a guiding principle--the right to life, survival, and development. Mama offers more diverse evidence to support the idea of education as a basic right and desire; she mentions both the psychological theory of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the personal testimony of author Greg Mortenson. While keeping schools open might be hard in devastated areas, it's essential, Mama asserts. "The educational pieces--you can't forget those."

Moving Forward After Conflict

Diplomat Radhika Coomaraswamy has seen an emphasis on the family and community all over the world. Best practices like these have been codified in the Paris Principles, created by 76 countries in the United Nations in 2007. Coomaraswamy attended the conference; she works for the UN as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. "From Sierra Leone to Nepal, research has shown that for children who are taken back to their families... the reintegration is much better."

While providing basic services in areas where conflict is ongoing or has only recently abated is easier said than done, many countries are making progress. In Afghanistan, for example, the formal process is just beginning. Coomaraswamy visited in February to lobby on behalf of the country's children. By late July, President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government had organized a steering committee on children and armed conflict to protect the country's youth. "It's a great idea, and in areas where the government has control, we do expect to do good work with them," Coomaraswamy says, but she points out that the government does not have control of the entire country. "In other areas we've had to rely primarily on international humanitarian actors." She is clear that every country--and every conflict--is different.

Part of the Afghan steering committee's mandate is to ensure schools are open and health care is available for children, and it will also help former child soldiers reintegrate. Coomaraswamy describes the balance necessary in helping child soldiers, "who may have perpetrated terrible violence," recognize their past but plan for their futures. "It's important that they understand what they did was wrong, but we work with them," she says. The hard work does pay off. "There are a lot of exciting things going on with former child soldiers in Sierra Leone," she says, including theater and arts groups that give the youth options to express themselves. Coomaraswamy has also seen progress in northern Uganda, where women who had been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army at very young ages had broken away from the group and were exercising their resilience--learning skills like tailoring that allow them to set up businesses for themselves.

Children of the Mugunga II camp for internally displaced persons near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, visited the DRC in April 2009 for discussions to ensure greater protection for children amid the humanitarian crisis in the country. Photo b Timothy La Rose/United Nations

Before child soldiers can become part of the community, however, the community has to forgive them. "That's why we believe that adults at least should be prosecuted, including for recruiting children, because people don't always forgive and they want justice," Coomaraswamy explains. "You find it all the time--what you want is to tell them, 'Yes, justice from adults. For children you have to see it more in a rehabilitative lens.'" This might seem obvious, but there are groups of people who might not be inclined to forgive. Coomaraswamy continues: "That requires certain generosity on the part of the victims of the child perpetrators."

Some cultures, particularly in Africa, have a public ceremony of forgiveness, Coomaraswamy notes. Betancourt has seen some of them in her work in Sierra Leone, where she says town hall meetings are common; "It's very easy, it's very natural, it's what people do." She and her fellow researchers have used the meetings in recent years to explain their work to communities, but since the civil war ended in 2002, they've also been venues for a countrywide sensitization campaign. International rescue groups and former child soldiers themselves would explain to their neighbors that they had been recruited into the rebel army and forced to commit violent acts. Though telling their stories was difficult for the youth, it was necessary for their communities to understand what happened. Now, "they share this awareness," Betancourt says, maintaining that that is important for the youths' further development. "One of the recommendations we make is that the sensitization process needs to be revisited.... It would be very helpful in this war-affected setting to continue these things over time."

Community acceptance might be the deal breaker in the success of former child soldiers reintegrating. Betancourt recalls what happened when many youth were released in Sierra Leone. "One of the first reactions was widespread fear and mistrust: 'Are these kids going to fly off the handle? Are they going to bring violence to our communities?' One way to sort of test people out was to tease people or provoke them," she explains. "How well kids navigated that test was fundamentally important to doing well," she continues. Those who had families, "ecological support around them," would be warned about possible teasing and taunts, and knew how to deal with it. "Young people who didn't do well when provoked, maybe because of trauma they experienced, [were those who] also didn't have the support systems around them, and who then got into cycles of worse and worse relationships with communities." Betancourt says the children who feel stigmatized respond in kind, with the same hostility and antisocial behaviors they perceive.


In general, reintegration works best after most of the open conflict has passed, Coomaraswamy notes, saying that it's harder to forgive former child soldiers when a war still rages on after they have been released or rescued from their positions. This is related to an observation Mama makes; she notes the distinction between refugees who cross national borders to escape from hardship, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who do not. "IDPs are always the harder piece than a refugee--you're in your own country." The decision to stay in a country can be particularly hazardous if the lack of infrastructure precludes any relief services (like in Sierra Leone, near the bottom of the UN's development index) or if flare-ups threaten a fragile peace (like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where thousands of people have lived in IDP camps for years).

Even if a country is relatively stable and the war is over, sometimes youth are reluctant to return to their previous lives. Coomaraswamy sees this especially in girls, many of whom have been raped and forced to live as sexual slaves for the men who recruited them. "I met in Colombia, as well as in Nepal, girls who feel very ashamed to go back to their communities," she relates. "In Colombia many of them had drifted into sex work in the urban areas, refusing to go back to their communities." In Nepal, where "they've commanded soldiers themselves, they don't see themselves going back into a docile housewife role." Boys and girls alike may have no family to return to, and without this buffer between them and the community, they decide not to return. "They run away and unfortunately many become street children or join criminal gangs," Coomaraswamy says.


Regardless of how and to whom reintegration programs are reaching out, the bottom line is that they are not successful unless they are sustainable. "We have to think about sustainability from the very minute of emergency response," Betancourt says. The peacekeepers, aid workers, and international emergency personnel don't want to take a country's gains with them when they leave. "One of the main aspects of any of these programs is capacity building," Coomaraswamy asserts.

And it's a lot of building, Betancourt confirms. Recalling her time in Sierra Leone, she says, "I think there's one psychiatrist in the whole country." She frets a little, imagining a youth with severe depression, who turns to substance abuse to self-medicate: "There isn't much of a system, there's no safety net to catch a child like that in Sierra Leone."

Workers who come in to help during a crisis shouldn't be tempted into heroics, Betancourt continues. "When people are in desperate situations they would very much like to see you as the person who's going to come in and fix everything." Instead, workers need to look for the strength within the community; "find people who themselves have skills and capacity to start up something more organized," she advises. The supporting role is critical. "The delicate balance, though, is to not shift the burden to overtax communities and expect them to do it alone."

Both women believe that a shift in the nature of fundraising is necessary. People respond in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but when there's a new crisis, sympathies--and donations--shift. "Things are funded in short-term ways without thinking about long-term goals," Betancourt says. Coomaraswamy adds that UN agencies often teach local leaders how to ask for help. "We train them in fundraising and they're taught all those skills--as well as managing and running the institutions."

Children Are People Too

In many of these countries, children under 15 make up half the population. Betancourt says this could be reason to worry: "Conflicts can start on the backs of disgruntled youth." This demographic becomes even more dangerous when support services are scarce, economic opportunities are thin, and--perhaps key--these complaints are ignored. "I'm impressed with young people," Betancourt says. "When you look at the kids we interview in-depth--they want to be doctors and lawyers and nurses and president--they want to change things." The problem, she adds, is the "huge disconnect" between the dream and the reality. To bridge the gap, communities and countries need to start listening to youth and respecting their perspectives.

"There's a tremendous energy and agency in young people everywhere I've worked, including the United States," Betancourt says. "Their rights to participate in decisions that affect them need to be respected." Mama points out that these are, in fact, rights; evolving capacity is recognized in the CRC, and the right to participate is one of the convention's guiding principles. One of her classes did a project based on the CRC called "Children Are People Too," to emphasize that they are not just people-in-the-making.

It's a tricky line to walk, Mama explains, especially because how children are treated now has such a formidable impact on their development and actions in years to come. "We need to at points categorize them as children, but at the same time that category clouds how we perceive them," she says. "We treat them differently sometimes in the wrong way.... In doing that we don't really remember that they have needs at the moment that we need to take care of."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor for Children's Voice.

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