The Central African Republic (CAR), as the name suggests, is landlocked in the center of six African countries that continue to experience conflict. Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Cameroon, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C) surround the Central African Republic. Unfortunately, CAR has not been exempt from the incessant fighting and tyranny these other countries have faced, in fact at this point, the situation has become one of the most critical in Africa. With an astonishing 2.3 million children affected, UNICEF ranks CAR as the highest possible level of emergency.
On Thursday May 15 2014, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting organized by UNICEF discussing the current situation in the Central African Republic. UNICEF Country representative for CAR, Souleymane Diabaté provided a presentation to parliamentarians and parliamentary staff that shook everyone in the room:
“In my twenty years of work with UNICEF, never have I seen anything like what is happening in the Central African Republic. Children are being directly targeted in violent attacks- even decapitated, boys and girls are being recruited into armed groups as child soldiers or to be sexually exploited, and children are witnessing unimaginable violence”
The sentiment expressed by Mr. Diabaté, suggested that the Central African Republic is on the immediate brink of war. The circumstances are even more concerning when you consider that 50% of CAR’s population is under the age of 18. That equates to an astounding 2.3 million young people that continue to be affected by this conflict. These youth are exposed to atrocities at an early age and have to deal with conflict throughout their adolescence. Some are displaced and others are lured into the violence.
It is estimated there are 6000 child soldiers actively involved in the conflict. These children are handed a gun and forced into the most traumatic circumstances imaginable. They are brainwashed to commit horrible and inconceivable acts. Rape against women and girls is rampant, as it is used to terrorize communities and break family ties. Children are exposed to horrid and utterly barbaric acts that cause severe traumatization following them into young adulthood.
I believe education is the key to curtailing violence and building a sustainable population. Unfortunately, for the children of the Central African Republic, the conflict has plagued their ability to attend school. Most teachers are too afraid to teach as instability impacts their ability to educate. In the past two years, virtually every school in CAR has been closed as rebel groups use schools to target the children. Rebel leaders know that a child with an education is less likely to join their fight. The innocence of this country’s youth has been systematically stolen and few are helping to get it back.
When I was Canada’s Envoy to Sudan, I visited Darfur during the height of their crisis. I talked to the mothers of children affected by the crisis and they always wanted to thank me for Canada’s contribution to UNICEF. I remember one mother’s words vividly, she said:
“When you give money to educate our children in the camp, you give our children a purpose in life, even in these desperate circumstances”.
With limited resources, UNICEF has been able to establish temporary learning spaces for about 25% of the youth affected. Most of these spaces are set up for the over 600,000 internally displaced people in CAR. UNICEF is doing all that it can to support the youth of this region and implement some sort of normality in their lives. However, they do so with lack of security and resources to complete their goals.
France has sent help to the Central African Republic in the form of troops on the ground. Other allied countries have pledged assistance but some have yet to follow through. As a citizen of the world, and a fellow francophone country, Canada has a small window of opportunity to provide assistance to a country in dire need. The time is now to speak up and use our influence in the international community to spark change. We must recognize that with no intervention, the Central African Republic will descend further into chaos and it is the youth who will suffer. As Mr. Diabaté said,
“If we don’t do something today, this generation will forever be lost”.
In the Senate, I asked the government what they are going to do to help in the Central African Republic. Listen to what they said here: