project dukanure for the rehabilitation of female former child soldiers

Project Dukanure

The Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Torture Survivors in Chicago has been providing mental health care to refugees and asylum seekers for over twenty years. One of its former directors, Mary Fabri, had been working on a project in Rwanda in 2004 to provide trauma counseling to victims of the 1994 genocide who were infected with HIV/AIDS. One of our colleagues, Scott Portman, travelled to neighboring Burundi (“the country just south of Rwanda”) in 2006 to do research and speak with local aid organizations to see if the service model in Rwanda could be adapted to the Burundian context. Scott submitted a proposal to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in 2007, and received a grant in 2008 to assist female former child soldiers. Right around that time, I was wrapping up two years at the National Immigrant Justice Center, another Heartland Alliance program. When I heard they wanted to send a French-speaking expat, I jumped at the opportunity.

My transition to Heartland’s International Programs is rather easy to explain. It was a natural fit: my parents were both executives in a clock-making company and my brother is an investment banker, so *of course* I would end up in central Africa managing humanitarian assistance projects. I’ve probably got a lot of ground to make up.

There were also some interesting convergences. That Spring, I had been accepted to the Fletcher School near Boston to study international relations, but I wanted to defer my attendance until I gained some field experience; the direct switch from office to classroom didn’t appeal to me. Ultimately, I was pulled in by that reliable trinity of wanting to put something off, wanting to see something new and…speaking French. Those three combined almost certainly lands a person in Francophone Africa doing development work.

As it turns out, one of the faculty at Fletcher, Academic Dean Peter Uvin, had just been in Burundi in 2007, and he had produced a report for the World Bank on the post-demobilization economic circumstances of former child soldiers. One of the most striking features of the report for me was the disparity between girls and boys. In all, Prof. Uvin spoke to 63 former child soldiers, but only two were female. The problem is linked to perceptions of what constitutes a ‘child soldier’. In popular portrayals of child soldiers such as the movie, “Blood Diamond” and Ishmael Beah’s account of being a child soldier, one gets the impression that child soldiers are all gun-toting boys jacked up on drugs. But as set forth in the Cape Town Principles, child soldiers can also be cooks, porters, spies, cleaners, just as in any army. Girls face an added dimension of sexual abuse, sometimes coerced to be soldiers’ “wives” or sex slaves. And while the Cape Town Principles do not consider whether a child joined voluntarily or not as the basis of criminality in deploying child soldiers, there *are* many instances of children joining voluntarily. In some cases, children view military groups as a political or ethnic cause or a means to wealth or power. Others join a certain group to gain revenge against that groups’ enemies, who may have harmed the child’s relations. Ironically, some children join because they have nowhere left to go once a military group has slaughtered all of their relatives.

For me, this is another major strength of Heartland Alliance’s strategy toward program development. It’s not simply about helping those in need, but helping those with the greatest need, those who may never have received help at all. There is innovation in the approach and by operating  the program on a small-scale pilot scheme, it invites constant refinement and strives to identify effective practices that will be adaptable to other contexts. To my knowledge, there is no other residential program that is entirely dedicated to female child soldiers’ needs in the region (and likely on the continent). Yet, girls and young women require very specific types of services relating to very specific experiences that are often incompatible with services for boys or young men. Already male child soldiers struggle through demobilization processes that are targeted toward men; girls then barely register as an afterthought. In this region, demobilization processes do not account for the presence of girls in armed groups, so many end up going home on their own with no reintegration assistance.

Numbers are difficult to come by in such a context, but given the broad scope of the Cape Town Principles, there are certainly more female former child soldiers (FFCS) than the 50 that UNICEF identified and demobilized from 2006 to 2008. Fifty over a 15 year period is not a credible figure especially in this mode of conflict where civilians are specifically targeted to gain psychological and logistical advantages. Our rounds of site visits to local communities to identify potential cases confirms this; we had surpassed that figure within the first week of interviews with community members. A large majority of the young women we spoke with are still traumatized by their war experiences but have received almost no attention or assistance for their suffering. Through a case-by-case review, we tried to select cases that seem most dire, that may have suffered grave mental or physical injuries and that now have very little family or community support. Only a few of these cases were  child soldiers who joined voluntarily or carried arms. Some of the people who resisted the project’s launch initially based their objections on the possibility of helping people who may have committed violent acts. But I think it helps to think of the main beneficiaries of our project as girl victims of the war rather than active perpetrators of violence.

Project Dukanure officially launched in October 2009, 15 months after I arrived in Burundi. Many of this blog’s stories relate to my experience of registering Heartland Alliance as a legal non-governmental organization (NGO) in Burundi. My favorite posts usually involve a guy named Felix. Fifteen months. Sometimes, I wonder if I can sue the government to give that time back to me but just the thought of going through that nutty bureaucracy again makes me fall to the floor in a daze.

‘Dukanure’ means ‘we are opening our eyes’ and the meaning suggests that the participants are regaining control of their lives. But the meaning also extends to the community and family members who are increasing their knowledge about this topic and learning ways to facilitate the girls’ rehabilitation. Project Dukanure aims to help 200 female former child soldiers by providing mental health counseling, social education and job skills training in a safe setting at a residential facility. Groups of 24 girls stay at the Center for 15-weeks at a time while taking courses and participating in individual and group activities led by Burundian female mental health counselors. At the end of their stays, we provide a kit that builds on their job skills to help them start earning their own income. We also provide follow-up home visits to make sure the reintegration process is proceeding well. To date, we have helped 48 female former child soldiers reintegrate into their communities and are now assisting a third group at the Center.

July 30, 2010

These are photos of a site visit  the day after the Sange trip, which I blogged about earlier. The contrast in mood couldn’t be more evident. Our work in Sange is an emergency response to a catastrophic incident. The entire community is still experiencing collective shock and it shows. Project Dukanure strives to equip young women with the tools to reintegrate socially and to become income earners – massive challenges considering their circumstances. The objective here is to create long-term gains by providing very attentive and supportive care in a safe environment. These services will hopefully help the participants rebuild their lives even as the country transitions out of the ‘post-conflict’ context into a development phase.

As mentioned, this is our third group of participants to stay at Dukanure Center. Unlike the first two groups (which I will write about later), this group came from Cibitoke Province in the northwest of the country. Its close proximity to eastern Congo results in a proportional uptick of lively dancing, music-making and general mischief. The two preceding groups were from central Burundi and I am told that people from that area are much more reserved. They are not kidding.

Usually, there’s some coordinated dance routine to welcome visitors (pretty much just my colleagues and me) and often it’s very structured with rows of dancers moving at square-dance speed. This time, when Ben, Molly and I walk up toward the courtyard, it is louder than any 24 people should be legally loud. The dirt’s kicking up, the girls are in a spinning circle. They have a drum. It’s fantastic.

We really have no choice but to join in. The song the girls are singing is the “Jeff, Ben and Molly – Come Sing and Dance with Us!” song. Plus, it’s another two hours before lunch is ready.

Speaking of lunch, it’s our open secret that we love the lunches that the Center’s cooks conjure up. It’s mostly stews – cabbage stew, stewed bananas that taste like potatoes, stewed greens, stewed beans, plus rice. It’s Burundian food, hearty and simple and equally easy to cook for five or 500. It’s food that’s readily available at most restaurants, but here, it’s different, it’s *better*. I don’t know why, I can’t explain how. Maybe it’s the coarse salt or maybe it’s the fresh chili peppers. I think it’s the comforting experience of eating in a dining hall. It never gets old.

A snap of the Center and the plots where the girls have been growing vegetables through their agronomy class. These cabbages will be used to supplement the girls’ diets during their stay. Subsequent groups of participants will also benefit from the ongoing gardening projects. Around 90% of Burundi’s population is engaged in subsistence farming.

For the better part of the visit, we join the girls in a raucous game of…go-around-the-circle-high-fiving? It’s kind of hard to explain – but it’s really funny to look at! (Photos of that soon.)

After the game, Molly works with the counselors for a bit on data collection methods. Then I meet with them and explain a photography project that we want to try out with the participants. I show them how to operate the digital cameras that we will be distributing over the next week to pairs of participants so that they could document each other’s activities at Dukanure Center. I can’t wait to see what they produce and I’m sure there will be wonderful shots that I can post here soon.

Christine (with badge), our Project Coordinator for Dukanure, getting the farewell treatment:

2 Responses to “project dukanure for the rehabilitation of female former child soldiers”

  1. August 15, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    the cabbage is beautiful! as are all the sweet faces–both (un) and familiar.

    i am hoping to come back soon (with yoga mats) and see how the program has evolved since april.

    you have done an amazing job–all of you have. you should be most proud.

  2. 2 Boujin
    August 15, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Wonderful stuff Jeff. Really enjoyed reading a bit more about the program you guys are running there. Very impressive and making a world of difference to so many people I’m sure. My utmost respect and encoragement. I’m looking forward to the high five shots and the candid digital shots from the participants in the program.

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August 2010


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