By Amanda Kloer, Special to CNN
Editor's Note: Amanda Kloer is an editor with Change.org, where she organizes and promotes campaigns to end human trafficking. She has created numerous reports, documentaries and training materials on human trafficking in the United States and around the world.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where civil war and frequent violence have raged for fourteen years, there have been reports of forgotten children known to some as “falling whistles.” These children have been kidnapped from their homes, schools and friends by rebel groups and turned into child soldiers, bush wives, porters, and human shields – the youngest and smallest of them often too small to hold a man-sized gun.
So instead, the tiniest have been sent into battle armed only with whistles. Their job? To make enough noise to scare the heavily-armed rival troops away. And then, with their small bodies, absorb the first round of bullets.
The story of these young soldiers is only one of the many untold tragedies of the ongoing conflict in Congo. According to the Enough! Project, 45,000 people in Congo die each and every month, mostly from hunger and disease resulting from the ongoing conflict. Over 1 million people have been displaced. But some of the most egregious collateral damage from the conflict has been suffered by women and children.
A 2007 UNICEF report on child trafficking found approximately 200,000 victims in Central and West Africa, and the UN estimates there are approximately 3,500 child soldiers in the Congo today. Children are trafficked from Benin, Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Togo, and Cameroon. Many are lured with the promise of jobs or apprenticeships, but are then forced to work on farms or in private homes, conscripted into the militia, or exploited in prostitution.
The gravity of child trafficking in Congo is only eclipsed by the challenges of how to help Congo's children, when they face death on the battlefield and violence at home. The many organizations working to advocate for peace in Congo often disagree how best to meet those challenges. But one strategy most Congo advocates agree on is this: the key to ending child trafficking in Congo is bringing peace and stability to the country.
Luckily, just six short months from now, there will be an unprecedented opportunity to do just that.
This November, Congo will hold historic elections – only the second since the official end of Africa’s Second World War. These elections could be the first time the country experiences a peaceful transfer of power through the democratic process. If the November elections are free, fair, and represent the choices of the Congolese people, they could establish a powerful pattern of peace and stability in the country. If they aren't, the likelihood of violence is high.
That's why a coalition of the leading Congo advocacy organizations, including Falling Whistles, a nonprofit taking its name from the tragedy of young child soldiers, is calling for the U.S. to help ensure the upcoming elections in Congo are free and fair. The coalition says the fastest and cheapest way to do that – and avert a human rights disaster of Holocaust proportions – is to appoint a Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
A Special Envoy would be able to raise critical funds from international donors to facilitate fair elections, pressure the Congolese government to enact electoral reforms, and coordinate U.S. and international policy. This Envoy would also help ensure that legislation recently passed to prevent child trafficking, like the Dodd-Frank Act banning the import of conflict minerals and the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament bill, is implemented. And an envoy would be a prominent symbol and tool for peace this coming November.
This call for a Special Envoy is nothing new. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded this appointment six years ago in a bi-partisan bill they co-sponsored as senators. But now that they have the power to implement their own recommendation, they have yet to do so.
So tens of thousands of peace activists have signed an online petition in support of a Special Envoy on Change.org, the world's fastest-growing social action platform. They are joined by 35 Members of Congress and 6 Senators, who are also demanding swift action.
But time is running out. Unless an envoy is appointed within the next couple of weeks, there won't be enough time to actually affect the upcoming elections.
You can find out more about the ongoing campaign for a U.S. Special Envoy for Congo here, including how Ben Affleck is lending his talent to fighting for Congo's children. Or consider making a donation to charities helping children in Congo, like SOPROP. In doing so, you'll be part of helping end one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts of our time and restoring the lives of Congo’s forgotten children.