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The ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) launched its program in Burundi on October 1 to implement a program focusing on reintegrating child soldiers into Burundian society. The program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, will train judges, prosecutors and police on juvenile justice issues, and will provide legal services to former child soldiers.
A primary goal of the program is to promote more effective collaboration between justice sector actors on the one hand, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work on the reintegration of former child soldiers on the other. To this end, ABA ROLI will identify and partner with three NGOs that currently deliver a variety of non-legal services to former child soldiers, including social, educational, vocational, psychological, medical and physical rehabilitation services. Among other things, ABA ROLI will work with these NGOs to provide on-site, “one stop” assistance to ensure that as many former child soldiers as possible receive necessary legal assistance. ABA ROLI will also conduct a public awareness campaign to promote greater understanding of issues related to child soldiers and to raise awareness about the availability of legal and social services through its partner NGOs.
Though the government of Burundi has been involved in a significant disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program that has made significant progress in reducing the number of child soldiers, many such soldiers are still not full participants in society. Many of those associated with the Forces Nationales pour la Libération languish in prisons and jails without being properly charged or told when they might be returned to their families. Human rights organizations have documented the deplorable conditions of their detention, including overcrowded cells and poor nutrition. Reintegrating female former child soldiers presents special challenges. The government’s demobilization efforts have almost entirely excluded them, as they were not labeled child soldiers but instead as “spouses” (sex slaves) of adult soldiers. Due to the stigma associated with this status, pregnant child soldiers were not outspoken about their problems, with many of them accused of attempted abortion and subsequently arrested.
Beginning in December, ABA ROLI will hold trainings for lawyers and paralegals on rights afforded to minors under Burundian law, as well as provisions made to protect victims of gender-based violence in the capital, Bujumbura. ABA ROLI will also pair paralegals and criminal defense lawyers through a legal aid internship program. This will help to expand the very limited pool of legal professionals skilled in addressing the needs of former child soldiers.