BY PERNILLE IRONSIDE
On 10 February 2015, children surrender their weapons during a ceremony formalizing their release from the SSDA Cobra Faction armed group, in Pibor, South Sudan.
This month marks ten years since my first negotiation to release ‘child soldiers’ from armed forces.
I still remember the look of fear mixed with excitement of Jean-Baptiste* as he realized he was going to go back to his family and his village in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With the help of UNICEF, he was starting the long journey during which UNICEF would help him heal, complete his education and envision a peaceful future.
Jean-Baptiste was far from the only child enrolled in the armed forces – in the four years I spent in DRC, more than 25,000 children were released and reintegrated into their communities across the troubled eastern part of the country.
As recently as last month, another 152 former ‘child soldiers’ were reunited with their families in DRC after months or even years of being apart. People often underestimate the perseverance and painstaking efforts involving in finding these children, releasing them from military life, reunifying them with their families and providing them the support they need to return to family life.
I remember vividly Jean-Baptiste describing to me how he had been forced to bury his friend who died of disease after months of living in the bush with little access to food or water, carrying heavy loads and always on alert for potential combat. Other children I met spoke of losing friends in battle, or even being forced to kill home-sick comrades who had tried to escape the group.
Last time I heard about Jean-Baptiste, he was happily at home, where he belongs, with his siblings and relieved parents. He was attending a vocational programme to learn carpentry and open a small business. His success was heart-warming though fragile as the region was still in turmoil. We even feared he might enroll again out of despair if he were not provided with the means of earning a livelihood.
As we mark the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, I cannot help but reflect on how children and adolescents are increasingly vulnerable to recruitment and use by armed forces and groups as conflicts around the world become more brutal, intense and widespread. Children end up on the frontlines sometimes by force, but more often than not they join armed forces driven by poverty, vengeance or ideology. They are used to fight but often start out in support functions that also entail great risk and hardship, serving as porters – often carrying heavy loads – look-outs, cooks or even sexual slaves.
As I worked in other parts of the world, I came across many children with the same hopes and fears as Jean-Baptiste. One of them was Samita*, who had been associated with the Maoist armed group in Nepal and rejected the idea of returning to the traditional lifestyle led by rural Nepalese women. To fulfil her aspirations, we helped her attend a nursing programme.
Whether in Nepal, DRC, Yemen, South Sudan, Colombia, Myanmar or any other country affected by armed conflict, our goal for anyone recruited into armed forces below the age of 18 is the same: release them and help them reintegrate back into the community.
How we go about doing this is tailored to each specific context and the needs of the children there. Their journey is often long, but full of promises and incredibly rewarding when we see them starting to believe in themselves, and thrive.
Over the past decade, amazing progress has been achieved to get children out of national armies and armed groups. However, since last year there are worries that this work might be jeopardized as several armed forces have started recruiting children once again. We are faced with the possibility of losing the ground that had been gained. We see this happening in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Central African Republic. This is harmful not only for the children and their families, but also for their communities.
To live in a more peaceful world, the last thing we need today are children on the front lines. Families and countries must value the protection of children and preserve their childhood.
UNICEF works with local partners to support children once they are released from armed forces and groups. This includes reunifying them with their families and providing them with health care, basic necessities and psychological support, as well as access to education and training programmes.
In addition to helping children associated with armed groups heal, we need to prevent the recruitment and use of children for military purposes. This includes helping children and adolescents to have access to meaningful livelihood opportunities to lessen the allure of stipends often offered to young military recruits, particularly from poor backgrounds.
In my current duty station in Gaza, the stakes could not be higher for children and the prospects of peace.
Among the concrete steps we can take are helping children to stay in school where they can learn skills that are relevant to the local job market, while prioritizing the creation of opportunities in the most impoverished and vulnerable communities.
Investing in children’s potential to help them become productive and peaceful members of society is a chance not only for the children themselves and their families, but for entire countries.
Pernille Ironside is the Chief of UNICEF’s Gaza Field Office. She has previously worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen, as well as UNICEF’s Headquarters on child protection in emergencies.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
The recruitment and use of children in armed forces is a violation of international law, and children who are recruited and forced to fight and kill suffer profound physical and psychological damage. Children not Soldiers, launched in 2014 by Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and UNICEF, is a campaign to make all government armed forces child-free by 2016.