300 child soldiers have been released in South Sudan, but there is still a long way to go

On Wednesday 7 February 2018, the United Nations announced that 311 child soldiers which included 87 girls, have been released in South Sudan. The South Sudan National Liberation Movement released 215 children, while the Sudan People’s Liberation Army freed 96. 

This move has been celebrated as a crucial step, with 700 children expected to be freed over the coming weeks. This is the largest number of child soldiers to be released in the country since 145 children in 2016, and it was the first release by any of the South Sudanese armed groups in over a year. However, UNICEF estimates that around 19,000 children continue to serve as child soldiers, more than four years after the civil war broke out in December 2013.

A reintegration programme implemented by UNICEF and other groups will provide children with medical and psychological support. Children with families can expect to receive three months of food assistance, while others will be placed in care facilities until their families are located. David Shearer, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for South Sudan, stressed the need for an effective and supportive re-integration process. He explained that the children “will have endured suffering, including sexual abuse. It is vital that they receive the support they need to re-join their communities and that they are welcomed home by family and friends without any sense of stigma.”

Children will also be offered vocational training. Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF’s Representative in South Sudan, emphasised that many children join armed groups voluntarily, because they envision no other options. He stated that “our priority for this group – and for children across South Sudan – is to provide the support they need so they are able to see a more promising future.”

On 13 February 2018, the South Sudanese Ministry of General Education and Instruction launched the fourth phase of its “Back to Learning Initiative”. This will target the most under-represented communities throughout South Sudan, and provide educational opportunities for children currently unable to attend school. This could be due to conflict, but also obstacles such as family finances, and cultural barriers. During the first two years of the initiative, more than 680,000 children were provided access to education.

Nevertheless, this week Human Rights Watch (HRW) also released a statement accusing armed forces and armed opposition groups in South Sudan of continuing to recruit child soldiers, despite commitments to stop. HRW found that children as young as 13 have been abducted and detained since the signing of a peace agreement in August 2015. Promises to demobilise children to UNICEF by the end of January 2018 have not been kept.

The organisation called for the UN, the African Union (AU), the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and their member states to immediately impose and enforce an arms embargo on South Sudan, alongside targeted sanctions against individuals including President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riex Machar.

Current and former child soldiers interviewed by HRW revealed that they had been abducted from their homes or the streets, and detained for days or weeks in overcrowded containers. Several described that they had been subjected to physical abuse and lacked adequate food.

International human rights law prohibits the use of children under 18 in hostilities, and enlisting or using children under 15 is a war crime. Even so, South Sudan’s leaders have failed to investigate or prosecute commanders for these crimes. Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said that “the continued recruitment and use of children by the military and opposing armed groups point to the utter impunity that reigns in South Sudan, and the terrible cost of this war on children.”

Segun also explained that “South Sudan’s leaders have irrevocably damaged yet another generation and need to be held accountable.”

Despite this, David Shearer has a more optimistic view for 2018. He said that “lives can get better” in South Sudan, and he suggested that there is a possibility that lasting peace deal could be struck this year.

— Featured image — South Sudan | AK Rockefeller: flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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