Over 300 child soldiers have been formally released by armed groups in South Sudan, according to the United Nations. The 311 children, which includes 87 girls, will now begin the process of reuniting and reintegrating with their communities. Agencies such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in conjunction with local partners, will endeavour to provide them with counselling and psychological support as part of the reintegration program, as well as providing services like food assistance and vocational training. The move marks the first release of this kind in over a year, and is the initial phase of an overall program that aims to see more than 700 children returned to their families.
“Children should not be carrying guns and killing each other,” said David Shearer the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for South Sudan, “they should be playing, learning, having fun with friends, protected and cherished by the adults around them.” While welcoming the release, Mr. Shearer made sure to remind everyone that “they will have endured suffering, including sexual abuse,” and that “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.”
Furthermore, the way in which this release has been treated is as a first step in a long journey. These children are indeed no longer participants in the fight, as was symbolised in a “laying down of the guns” ceremony conducted upon their release, as they work to recommence normal life their challenges are not necessarily over. This was noted by Mahimbo Mdoe, the head of the UNICEF program in South Sudan. He importantly emphasised that not all children are forcibly recruited but rather join due to poor circumstances and as a result, “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.”
The conflict in South Sudan, which began after the political rift between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, has been raging since December 2013. Multiple peace deal attempts have failed, the most notable being an accord signed in August 2015. In the meantime, the protracted fighting has brought about broad consequences both within the country and beyond its borders. There have been tens of thousands of lives lost as a result of the war, one quarter of the country’s population of 12 million have been displaced and according to the United Nations, half the population are in need of humanitarian assistance while more than 1.2 million are at risk of famine.
The release of more than 300 child soldiers is an undeniably positive step however, the underlying problem of civil war in South Sudan still remains. The UNHCR has reported that both sides have been using children to fight and in spite of the release, the United Nations says that around 19,000 children continue to be used by armed forces and groups more than four years after the fighting began. Even as South Sudan’s government says it has committed to ending the practice, human rights groups say that child recruitment continues. As such, it can be expected that the issue will persist while a resolution to the conflict remains out of reach in South Sudan.