Child Protection in the DRC: A Conversation with MONUSCO Child Protection Officer, Carolina Meroni
By: Maya Kelly
World Children’s Day, celebrated annually on 20 November, calls for improving children’s welfare, a goal that is at the heart of UN Peacekeeping. The protection of children in conflict has been included in the mandates of UN peacekeeping operations since 2001, following the Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1379 (2001).
Today, in addition to the integration of child protection measures in the mandates of certain UN peacekeeping operations, Child Protection Advisors (CPAs) and staff are deployed within four peacekeeping missions: UNMISS, MINUSMA, MINUSCA and MONUSCO.
Carolina Meroni, 26, works for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) as a Child Protection Officer. MONUSCO has the largest Child Protection Section in any peacekeeping mission, and has specific protection mandates and specialized staff based around the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Carolina Meroni is one of these staff members. Stationed at MONUSCO’s headquarters in Goma, North Kivu, Carolina has served as the Child Protection Reporting and Database Manager since November 2020, where she monitors, analyses and reports on child’s rights violations in the DRC.
Carolina and the Child Protection Section track, report and mitigate the six grave violations against children in conflict, as identified and condemned by the United Nations Security Council. The six grave violations are: recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups; killing and maiming of children; sexual violence against children; attacks against schools or hospitals; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access for children.
We spoke with Carolina to learn more about her work and how MONUSCO contributes to the protection of children in armed conflict.
What inspired you to work in the field of child protection?
My mother’s side of the family has lived in Ivory Coast for several years. While growing up as a kid I was always aware of the difficult situation of children particularly in Ivory Coast through my grandmother’s stories. So let’s say I grew up with this sense of responsibility towards others, especially children.
I chose my university studies knowing that I wanted to do this job, so I have a background in international cooperation and social sciences.
Working with children is something I love and that I truly believe in, as they are the future. So when trying to achieve peace it is very important to work with children to really tackle the problem and try to find more long-term solutions, as they will be the new generation.
Do any moments throughout your work with MONUSCO stand out as particularly inspiring?
The most inspiring experience that I’ve had since I joined MONUSCO is definitely a mission engagement with a non-state armed group to present the roadmap to the armed group commanders. It was very important for me to actually see the process with my own eyes and be on the ground to better understand the conflict and why such armed groups rise and to really understand the complexity of the conflict in the DRC.
This experience was really touching as we had a heartfelt and honest conversation with the members of this non-state armed group. It was also very inspiring to see how my colleagues who have more experience in this field managed this engagement mission.
The roadmap that we presented to the non-state armed group was based on the Action Plan that the Forces Armées de République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), the DRC National Army, signed in 2012.
How is MONUSCO helping protect children in conflict in the DRC?
In terms of child protection specifically, MONUSCO engages with non-state armed groups and state forces to stop and prevent the recruitment and use of children in conflict along with other children’s rights violations.
We [MONUSCO] also do advocacy and communication with state forces. We have the joint technical working group both at a national and provincial level. In case we see a rise in violations from state forces, we do advocacy at that forum and make sure that the higher command of the authority sees and takes action on that to stop and prevent violations.
We also raise awareness and do trainings on the 6 grave violations. This is a tactic of personal prevention and also reporting. Once communities are aware of what the 6 grave violations are, then we might receive more information from them.
Can you share an example that outlines the child protection progress made through UN intervention?
There are two main statistics I would like to share.
Since we started communicating with non-state armed groups, 42 armed group commanders have signed a roadmap with Child Protection MONUSCO which has led to the voluntary release of 2,444 children so far.
The reason why we decided to start engaging and communicating with non-state armed groups is based on positive lessons learned and encouraging results with the FARDC, the DRC’s National Army.
They [DRC] signed a roadmap with us [MONUSCO] in 2012 because they were listed in the Secretary-General’s ‘black list’ for recruitment and use [of child soldiers]. They were successfully delisted in 2017 because there were zero cases of recruitment and use of children by the FARDC.
These examples show progress from the non-state armed group side and the state forces side.
What are other areas that require advocacy? What are the next steps?
This is a hard question. First of all, we need to work more on early warning mechanisms and preventative action. Second, we need to take a deeper look into re-recruitment [of child soldiers] due to lack of funding. The issue of funding is an essential one to secure the care of children once they are separated from armed groups. We have this problem in the DRC: there is too much short-term funding and not enough money to support all of the children that are separated from armed groups for a longer period of time. So this often leads to the re-recruitment of children.
We also need to address — and we are actually working on it — the problem of girls being recruited. We must dig deeper into this issue, as I believe there is an underrepresentation of girls who are recruited by armed-groups in official data, either because they are rarely released or because their reintegration into society raises issues such as stigmatization.
Another key issue is the persistent low percentage of convictions after crimes are reported.
What is the long-term impact on the Congolese society that you seek to have through your work?
The ultimate goal is to have zero violations against children in armed conflict in the DRC. This is extremely long-term and hard to achieve, especially when thinking about how long the conflict has been going on in the country and how complex it is.
But this is definitely our main objective and the ultimate goal.
The short term goal is the protection of children through care, mainstreaming and advocacy, which are the activities we [MONUSCO] are already carrying out in partnership with UNICEF.
Besides this, we need to support the reduction and resolution of conflict to provide children with a better future with more opportunities. As I mentioned already, children are victims of a situation that they have almost no control over. So, this is the reason why it is so important to work with and for children.
Editor’s note: As part of the 2021 The Road to a Lasting Peace: Leveraging the Power of Youth for Peace and Security campaign, Carolina Meroni, 25, had the opportunity to highlight the central role youth play in promoting durable peace. Watch her video call with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres here.