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Goma, 11 February 2013 – For anyone who travels along the muddy and rugged roads of the eastern province of North Kivu, teenage boys clasping on to rifles or some other type of firearm is commonplace. Children are frequently the victims of forced recruitment in the ranks of one of the many armed groups in Congo. Other times, they join rebel groups as they believe it to be the only viable prospect for the future.

To mark Red Hand Day, dedicated to the plight of child soldiers in countries of conflict, commemorated annually on 12 February, the Jesuit Refugee Service in Great Lakes Africa highlights the importance of education and access to school as a priority instrument in preventing the entry of minors into rebel groups. In addition, JRS reiterates its appeal to the Congolese authorities to protect minors from all forms of exploitation by the military.

JRS staff in North Kivu, an area in which more than 900,000 displaced persons live with ongoing insecurity, have witnessed the benefits that education, offering hope of a better future to displaced children and adolescents. Moreover, education is fundamental so that tomorrow's adults do not take up arms and instead become future leaders dedicated to peace building and development of the country.

"We have noticed that the boys who voluntarily join armed groups are those who don't attend school. Therefore, it's important that there are more schools and educated young people in North Kivu. We teach them about tolerance and respect so that tomorrow they become peace builders in Congo", explained Esperance Nsengimana, teacher in Kanyangohe secondary school, built by JRS in 2012.

Education instils hope. Claude Wiringye just turned 18 years of age but has lived in a camp for displaced persons since he was 10. He currently lives in Mweso camp with his mother and younger siblings where he is enrolled in his final year of school.

"Life in the camp is very difficult, particularly when trying to find something to eat because we don't have any land to grow anything. Fortunately I go to school and I know that this will help me in the future", said Claude.

Claude is very clear about his future goals: pass the final year exams and become a psychology teacher.

"This way I'll have a job and be able to help my family. On the other hand, with a background in psychology I'll be able to make myself useful to the community by teaching others mutual respect to help people to live in peace. Going to school has given me back hope", Claude added.

Going to school in war zones. For displaced children, acquiring an education is anything but taken for granted. Having lost the only income they possessed, land, most parents are not able to pay school fees to send their children to school, not to talk about paying for uniforms and books. For this reason, when JRS builds a school, headmasters in the community do their best to accept as many displaced children as possible. JRS built four schools in the Mweso area in 2012.

Ongoing violence by rebel groups still represents the greatest obstacle for children trying to access education. Following the military incursion into the provincial capital, Goma, by the March 23 Movement (M23) late last November more than 240,000 children missed school for several weeks.

Forced recruitment. While schools are a major preventative force in keeping children away from rebel groups, it is also the responsibility of the Congolese authorities to protect children from forced recruitment.

Last September, JRS was one of the signatories of a press statement urging the Congolese government to guarantee protection to children against forced recruitment. According to Human Rights Watch, from May to September 2012, at least 48 children were recruited by M23 rebels.

In October, the national government and the UN agreed on an action plan for the protection of children against forced recruitment and other human rights violations at the hands of armed groups or the military.

During the recent crisis in Goma, however, UN agencies and NGOs condemned the systematic human rights violations by state and armed group, including "killings, kidnappings, torture and destruction of private property", in which adolescents were also involved.

Danilo Giannese, JRS Great Lakes Africa Communications and Advocacy Officer