10 Stories of Impact

Research critical to protecting children in conflict

It’s no accident that the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security calls one of Canada’s most research-intensive universities home.  

Research plays a critical role in advancing the Dalhousie University-based team’s mission to progressively end the recruitment and use of children in violence. 

“Research contributes to a better understanding of the issues surrounding this complex international problem, while also informing our prevention-focused training and programs,” says Dallaire Institute Senior Research Officer, Dustin Johnson. 

From the outset, Dustin says, the Dallaire Institute’s groundbreaking research has led to practical applications. He points to earlier publications — on roundtable discussions with former child combatants and another on links between child trafficking and child soldiering — as examples of rigorous, peer-reviewed research that went on to inform the team’s training approach and materials.    

Building on the success of earlier work, Dustin says the team’s current research includes exploring issues of moral injury, monitoring for early warning signs of children in conflict, and understanding how the gender of UN peacekeepers impacts child protection. 

“The UN (and international community more broadly) is definitely showing renewed interest in the role of gender in peacekeeping — in particular, to promote the distinct values and approaches women bring to operations,” says Dustin. “We’re focused on this too through a four-year project that will be vital to ensure children are central in this discussion and provide a sound basis of evidence for better policymaking.”  

From her home base at the Dallaire Institute’s Africa Centre of Excellence (ACOE) in Rwanda, Manager of Research and Evaluation Francisca Mujawase is seeing the benefits of the team’s applied research on gender in peacekeeping first hand. “After just three decades since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has become an example for the world in its transition to stability and commitment to global peace – especially now the country is the third largest contributor to UN and African Union peacekeeping operations,” she says.  

“Rwanda has sent several women-only contingents to peacekeeping missions to support the protection of civilians. The difference these women make in these missions — and particularly how they interact with children in conflict — is remarkable. We’re now working with the Rwandan defence forces and police to study this approach and share our findings so the whole world can learn from Rwanda’s example.” 

In addition to leading research, the Dallaire Initiative also acts as a convener for other organizations’ research on children and armed conflict. The team’s journal Allons-y: Journal of Children, Peace and Security, annual research-focused events and collaborations with international researchers are fostering scholarly discussion and debate that both expands peace and security knowledge to better prioritize children and provides evidence for better policies and approaches.  

“Academics are sometimes thought to be locked away in ivory towers – but that couldn’t be further from the truth about our approach,” Dustin says. “Research for us means engaging with real questions and contributing to on-the-ground solutions that both advances scholarship and ultimately make the world a safer place for children.” 

Stay Connected 

The Dallaire Institute team is entering its second decade of impact in 2021. Follow the team on Twitter or Facebook to stay connected and visit the Dallaire Institute’s website to learn how to give your support. 

At the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security, advocacy and action go hand in hand. Over the last 10 years, the Dallaire Institute’s primary advocacy and communication goal has been to ensure preventing the recruitment and use of children in violence is a cornerstone of international policy and practice. Advocating to make prevention a priority, instead of just reactions to problems, has been a necessary – and impactful – innovation.

“Preventing the recruitment and use of children requires a multi-sectoral approach,” says Edouard Munyamaliza. He is the Dallaire Institute’s Country Representative/Program Director in South Sudan. “We have been looking at how we can combine policy and advocacy—trying to engage with the government to make sure that the policies and legal frameworks can be streamlined and actually integrate the doctrine of child protection.” Munyamaliza says, “We have also been looking at how we provide the security sector (police and military) with the skills to build their capacity, so they are well equipped to engage in prevention.”

South Sudan People's Defence Army

Participants in a Dallaire Institute training for the South Sudan People’s Defence Army on prevention of children’s recruitment and use.

Using a Child-Rights Upfront approach, the Dallaire Institute advocates for prevention through international forums and working closely with key institutions and policy makers. We also collaborate with national armed forces and the UN to help ensure the security sector receive training that places emphasis on their positive roles in preventing the recruitment and use of children in violence. For example, the Dallaire Institute has contributed to the Canadian Armed Forces Joint Doctrine Note and the Canadian Defence Policy, worked with the Luxembourg and Nigerian Missions to the UN to help draft UN Security Council Resolutions 2143 and 2151 to prioritize the need for effective pre-deployment training and security sector reforms to protect children, and convinced Canada to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration (which calls for educational establishments to be zones free from violence and attack globally).

As a major goalpost for prevention, the Dallaire Institute was contracted by the Canadian government in 2017 to co-draft the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers. The focus of the Vancouver Principles is to ensure 17 commitments focused on early, effective and coordinated action of prevention of the recruitment and use of children are supported and implemented globally. “Preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers is critical to achieving overall UN peacekeeping mission success and to setting the conditions for lasting peace and security.”

As the number of countries to endorse the Vancouver Principles has reached over 100, the Dallaire Institute is now turning its advocacy focus to implementation of those Principles by endorsing member states. Agreeing to endorse a document that focuses on preventing the recruitment and use of children is only the first step; a need to demonstrate a commitment to concrete actions to protect children by the security sector is the challenge.

While the recruitment and use of children in violence is an evolving and growing problem around the world, reliable and timely information to inform prevention efforts is still lacking. Thus, new methodologies are required to enhance existing knowledge and gain a better understanding of this global issue. So, as well as advocating for improvements in policy, the Dallaire Institute is working to build knowledge aimed at halting and even predicting the potential for recruitment and use of children before it happens.

“Conflict and violence have a devastating impact on communities, and particularly on children,” says Dallaire Institute Director of Research and Learning, Dr. Catherine Baillie Abidi. “While the recruitment and use of children in conflict is an evolving and growing problem, reliable and timely information to inform prevention efforts are still lacking. The need for improved prevention mechanisms inspired our current project called Knowledge for Prevention (K4P).”

The K4P project was launched in February 2019 to develop an Early Warning System for child soldier recruitment and use, and incorporate child-centred indicators within broader Early Warning systems of conflict prevention. An aspect that has failed to be incorporated effectively until this point.

“Engaging in early interventions of recruitment are far more effective than reactive responses,” says Baillie Abidi. “They disable the propensity of a group to continue targeting children, as well as prevent both children and communities from experiencing the widespread trauma of the use of children.”

Knowledge for Prevention (K4P)

As part of the K4P project, the Dallaire Institute also holds an annual K4P symposium to bring together actors in the early warning, child protection, and recruitment prevention fields to share knowledge and foster new collaborations. This knowledge sharing is essential to prompting global action.

“Early warning has been an important part of human defensive or protection systems for thousands of years,” says Tim Lynam, the lead data scientist working on the Dallaire Institute’s predictive model. He says that failures in previous early warning systems to predict grave human rights violations or mass atrocities, “compelled the K4P team to think long and hard about how to most effectively generate and deliver early warnings.”

Lynam says, “Successful early warning systems engage users in the process of the system design right from the start. They also link warning to action very clearly and explicitly. There is no point issuing a warning for the recruitment and use of child soldiers if no one does anything with or about the warning.”

The Dallaire Institute’s sophisticated K4P project aims to shape the early warning to early action field, by providing timely alerts to strengthen early and collaborative response mechanisms to better protect children in conflict environments.

 

So, what started as a bold idea has grown to become a common approach for people around the world who are united in the goal of preventing the recruitment and use of children in violence. And the Dallaire Institute will continue to ensure prevention remains at the heart of the conversation for years to come.

Follow the Dallaire Institute on Twitter or Facebook to stay connected with the 10th anniversary stories and celebrations, and visit the Dallaire Institute’s website to learn how to give your support.

When it comes to preventing the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, the Dallaire Institute team wrote the book. Literally. Now in its third edition, Child Soldiers: Training Handbook for Security Sector Actors has become a cornerstone of training efforts globally – whether through the programs offered by the Dallaire Institute itself, or through those of its partner organizations and growing network of Train-the-Trainer (TOT) graduates.

Dallaire Institute Handbook for Security Sector Actors

Available in English, French and Arabic editions, the Handbook starts by introducing core competencies to ensure training participants have a clear understanding of what constitutes a child soldier, why they present a unique security concern, and how effective reporting and collaboration with other concerned organizations can help make a difference. Next comes clear strategies that can be deployed across a broad range of scenarios, ranging from high-level military planning to more specific situations – how to deal with child soldiers who are running checkpoints, for example, or with children who are being used as human shields. To the layperson, these scenarios may sound alarming, but that’s certainly not the tone taken in the Handbook. Consistent with all Dallaire Institute training and tactics, the Handbook is designed to be grounded, impactful and, above all else, practical.

“Whether we’re working with representatives from the military, police, prisons, peacekeepers, government or civil society organizations, we’ve found the best way to influence people’s attitudes, knowledge and behaviour is through really practical tools and approaches,” explains Kalina McCaul, the Dallaire Institute’s Country Representative and Program Director in South Sudan.

“Our Training Handbook is a great example of that. The majority of people we work with aren’t focused on theory or abstract ideas. Many of them come from security, government and policy backgrounds, where the focus is on clearly setting out problems and processes to address them. So that’s the approach we take when we’re designing and delivering our training and other tools – translating our team’s research and best-practices into very practical ways of thinking and acting.”

Training of Trainers in South Sudan

In addition to the Handbook, scenario-based learning has proved incredibly effective in the Dallaire Institute’s suite of training programs, including pre-deployment sessions for peacekeepers and TOT participants. To keep people engaged during these multi-day sessions, Institute trainers use a range of innovative tools to bring scenarios to life, including an animated video created by DHX Studios (whose other production credits include Inspector Gadget and Teletubbies) and a set of specially commissioned playing cards that prompt conversations about different situations. Other practical approaches used with civil-society groups include community-mapping and action-planning exercises.

“We consistently hear really great feedback about our training sessions – especially from soldiers and other security actors who say that the scenarios we walk through together feel authentic because these are exactly the kinds of encounters they’ve had with children in real conflicts,” Kalina says. “Even more importantly, we hear that thanks to the practical approaches we walk through, people feel better informed and equipped to deal with situations involving child soldiers in future.”

Still Image from the Dallaire Institute’s Training Video

The value of bringing a practical lens to engagement and training is not lost on former Canadian Forces Colonel Jake Bell, who as a consultant with the Dallaire Institute led the development of a three-year training plan for security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Jake’s military career includes multiple peacekeeping deployments in Europe and Africa and a term as Chief of Operations for the United Nations mission to the DRC. He brought all this on-the-ground experience to bear in his work with the Congolese army, co-developing training for officers and troops on the prevention of recruitment and use of children as soldiers.

“You can’t afford to be anything but practical in your approach when it comes to changing military cultures,” Jake says. “You need to work with leaders to incorporate the Dallaire Doctrine into their doctrine and training system. Practical training on dealing with child soldiers must be integrated into their existing professional and operational training systems so that it becomes a normal part of their development. Understanding the long-term effects of violence and abuse on children, as well as the debilitating mental effects on soldiers facing child soldiers, will empower military forces to prevent the recruitment and use of children as weapons of war and prepare their soldiers to cope with the unique stresses that they will face. Soldiers and their leaders will have the confidence and competence to act in ways to ensure the protection of children. That’s been our focus in the DRC, and we’re pleased to see it’s making a real difference on the ground.”

Certain qualities spring to mind when we think of children: innocencepreciousnessvulnerability and potential, to name a few. But how often do we think about the rights of children? Or that children’s voices and viewpoints are not merely valid but absolutely central to tackling big challenges and shaping a better future?

Let’s face it – child advocates are rare. Even when they are given a platform – as in the case of Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai, say – it’s hard to shake the sense that many leaders and institutions are just humouring a prodigy rather than genuinely listening or making space for young people

As part of their mission to prevent the recruitment and use of children in conflict, the Dallaire Institute is ensuring that children’s rights are brought upfront in global, regional and local conversations and initiatives 

More than a quarter of the world’s population is 18-years-old or younger – and that number is even higher in places like Africa, South Asia and the Middle East,” explains Amara Bangura, Senior Communications Officer at the Dallaire Institute. “Once you realize that, it’s no longer possible – or sensible – to think of children as being marginal. That’s why we’re advocating that children and youth need to take part in the processes that impact their future. Their voices need to be heard and their rights prioritized in conversations about peace, stability and security.”  

What’s more, Amara says, adopting a Children’s Rights Upfront (CRU) approach helps to build bridges between otherwise opposed or unaligned groups in peace-building processes, providing an important site of agreement that can open up paths to collaboration. In 2020, for example, when the COVID-19 pandemic led to border closures and restricted international movement, the Dallaire Institute took to the airwaves to ensure that their CRU approach could continue to bring people together 

“During a pandemic, the media remains one of the few viable and reliable ways to access and engage people in most countries,” Amara saysTo take advantage of this opportunity, we launched a radio show called COVID-19 and Children in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)We brought together political leaders, securitysector representativeschildprotection experts, social activists and community members to talk about the welfare of children and how security forces can strengthen conflict prevention and protections for these most vulnerable members of society. 

Radio shows are not the only innovative tool in the Dallaire Institute’s CRU kit. In 2014, the team partnered with the United Nations to launch awareness-raising comic books in the DRC and Colombia, using the power of images to start conversations about the rights of childrenAnd, of course, promoting children’s rights and perspectives remains central to the Institute’s core training programs aimed at equipping peacekeepers, security-sector actors and others with the knowledge and skills they need to prevent the recruitment and use of children in conflict.  

Vicky Bryce, who leads monitoring and evaluation for the Dallaire Institute, says rigorously tracking the impact of training and other programs is critical in ensuring the successful delivery and sustainability of the team’s work.    

“In the last couple of years, we’ve interviewed more than 50 people who took part in our CRU-and-prevention focused training in places like Sierra Leone, Uganda and South Sudan,” Vicky says. “What we found is that these participants really do experience a shift in perspective about children in conflict, as well as reporting they feel better equipped with practical steps to follow when they encounter children in sites of real or potential conflict.  

This kind of feedback is important for a number of reasons. It helps us understand how we can make our programs even more targeted and impactful in future. And it demonstrates to other organizations the value of evidence-based programs and interventions. But perhaps most importantly, it helps our team know we’re on the right track – and that bringing children’s rights to the fore is a powerful way to drive positive change through our core training and more innovative kinds of outreach.”      

John Kon Kelei gets South Sudan. The young African nation is his home; its people are his family, friends and neighbors. As a former child soldier with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – now the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces – Kon is uniquely equipped to help advance the work of the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security. Today, the lawyer and former senior public servant is General Manager of the South Sudan Pensions Fund, but Kon is also an important member of the Dallaire Institute Team, serving as Project Liaison Officer – or a relationship architect – with South Sudanese leaders across a range of sectors.  

“Our ability to build relationships based on mutual trust is very different compared to many other civil-society organizations or NGOs,” Kon says. “My personal experience as former child soldier here helps a lot. When I’m meeting with military or police leaders, they automatically begin to trust the Dallaire Institute once they see that someone who was one of their own is involved with the organization.  

My experience as former Executive Director in the Ministry of ICT and work as government spokesperson also helps when we’re working to build relationships with politicians,” Kon adds. “When the leaders we’re meeting with recognize that we share a common experience and a common goal – to build a stable, peaceful and prosperous future for the people of South Sudan – they’re more inclined to trust us and work with us.”  

Building trusting relationships is core to the approach of the entire Dallaire Institute team, whether it’s through demonstrating a shared experience – such as in Kon’s case – or by offering judgement-free engagement with the different perspectives that people from varying professional and cultural backgrounds bring to the table. Instead of shaming violators of children’s rights, the Dallaire Institute Team seeks to build bridges instead, based on the simple idea that most people are ready to prioritize the rights of children and sign up to the mission of preventing the recruitment and use of children as soldiers. 

The team’s trust-building approach is clearly working, opening up opportunities for conversation, collaboration and capacity building – recently on a massive scale. This trust building began with an initial visit in 2015, at the request of UNICEF, in which General Dallaire and Dr. Whitman met with high level stakeholders in the peace process, former child soldiers, diplomats, and the security sector. 

In 2020, South Sudan’s Joint Transitional Security Council (JTSC) invited Dallaire Institute team members to deliver training to more than 3,500 unified forces personnel at Masnabira over a three-day period. The scale of this training was a far cry from the team’s typical, small-group approach, requiring careful planning and a meticulous approach to execute. Delivered outdoors to hundreds of people per session, the Dallaire Institute Team helped participants understand what constitutes child soldiering, why child soldiers are a security concern, and how people in security sector roles can prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers. In smaller sessions nearby, other team members worked intensely with military instructors and leaders, ensuring they received specialized training to foster local ownership and sustainability. While training a cohort of this size was a first for the Dallaire Institute, the road to this milestone had been paved with many earlier – and smaller — conversations and training sessions with security, government and civil society groups in South Sudan. It was this trust-building track record that gave the JTSC confidence in the Dallaire Institute Team to help deliver big things and lasting change.     

In Sierra Leone, the Dallaire Institute team has spent over six years earning and building trust with the country’s armed forces (RSLAF) and police (SLP), leading to a series of Memorandums of Understanding. One impactful outcome of this relationship building has been the creation of a skilled core of local lead trainers, who have not only acquired the knowledge and skills to train their fellow officers, but also are encouraged to adapt the materials in ways that make the most sense for them and their audiences – fostering a stronger sense of ownership. Lead trainers from both the RSLAF and SLP are now playing an important role in building capacity in Sierra Leone and across Africa. They have been critical to continuing to spread the Dallaire Institute’s mission – leading training programmes equipping peacekeepers and other security sector actors in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda, disseminating the knowledge, skills and a passion for preventing the use of children in violence.

Using children as weapons of war should be unthinkable. Yet 420 million children are impacted by conflict globally. As a result, children around the world are recruited and used by adults for political and economic gain in more than 14 places of conflict today. 

Tackling this global problem requires a global effort. It needs champions to bring together the right partners and innovative solutions to make the use of children in violence a distant horror of the past. It needs commitment from bright minds who can support such change, like the dedicated team at the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security. 

In 2020, the Dallaire Institute marked a decade of growth and impact globally. “In 2010, we were just two team members working out of a closet-sized office,” says Executive Director Dr. Shelly Whitmanwho is also the Intact Senior Fellow.  

As we enter our second decade, we’ve grown as an organization to be 32staff strong, working across three offices around the globe with demand growing each year for our partnership. 

“We’ve gone through a name change too, starting out as the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, then achieving institute status at Dalhousie in 2020. This shift expresses the true intent of our vision and mission. 

“In just 10 short years our team has helped to catapult the issue of children recruited and used in violence onto the international peace and security agenda, and into the hearts and minds of people around the world.” 

The Dallaire Institute’s journey began with the vision of Lieutenant-General (ret) the Honourable Roméo Dallaire, who made it his mission to prevent the use of children in violence. In 2007, General Dallaire brought together military personnel, former child soldiers, NGOs and academics to tackle the issue  

At the start, our approach was very theoretical and weighted towards the military perspective,” General Dallaire explains. “What Shelly helped us realize is that we needed to tackle the issues in a different way, bridging security and humanitarian thinking, backing it up with research and academic rigour, and translating it into policy and practice in the field. She also made a home for the team at Dalhousie – and that space and institutional support has been critical.”  

Even before meeting the General, Shelly had a wealth of on-the-ground experience in Africa, where she’d lived for seven years, 3 of which included working on the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She recalls encounters with many children who’d been ensnared in conflict – some as soldiers wielding AK47s, some as spies, and some as sexual and domestic slaves. Like the General, Shelly was convinced that a focus on prevention – instead of rehabilitation only – was key.  

That preventative approach is now core to the Dallaire Institute’s work bringing children’s rights to the forefront, researching the complex relationships between children and cycles of violence, and focusing on practical engagement with military, police, peacekeepers, community groups and security personnel. Some of the team’s most significant accomplishments to date include:  

  • Trained close to 15,000 participants from almost 100 countries and developing training materials now used by the UN, NATO and the African Union  
  • Co-created UN Security Council resolutions and NATO standard operating procedures on children in armed conflict 
  • Deployed the first-ever Child Protection Advisor to an African Union-led peacekeeping mission  
  • Led the development of the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers, which has been endorsed by 99 nations to date 
  • Contributed to International Criminal Court Policy on Children for the Office of the Chief Prosecutor  
  • Created an African Centre of Excellence in Rwanda to build on regional relationships and capacity building 

None of our work would be possible without the generosity of our supporters, whether it be our earliest funders such as the Molson Foundation, Power Corporation of Canada, UNIFOR, and James Mossman or those who gave to our Founders Fund starting in 2016 such as Jim Stanford, Charles Brindamour and the Isles Foundation who gave us the ability to grow rapidly over the past five years” Shelly says. “All that support – whether financial or in experience and expertise – gave us the opportunity to grow as quickly as we did. And it sustains us today. 

“I’m incredibly proud of our team. We have big plans for our next 10 years, and we have a duty to humanity to keep focused on this and to get it right, so that the recruitment and use of children in violence becomes truly unthinkable.”

CPS Podcast

Children, Peace and Security is a new podcast series produced by the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security.  Producers at the Dallaire Institute bring together subject matter experts on the recruitment and use of children in conflict through in-depth interviews and storytelling.  Dallaire Institute guests will explore new ideas on everything including training, advocacy and new research finding to help prevent the recruitment and use of children.

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