Various armed groups in South Sudan released over 200 child soldiers from its ranks within the last week, according to UNICEF. This latest release is part of an effort from the beginning of the year, orchestrated by UNICEF and supporting NGOs, to get over 700 child soldiers to be released.
Civil War in South Sudan
The South Sudan conflict began soon after the youngest African country gained its independence in 2011. The civil war was reignited in December 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused his then-Vice President Reik Machar and his supporters of staging a coup. As a result, Mr. Kiir’s loyalists, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and Mr. Machar’s supporters, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), have been fighting against each other. Despite the various attempts by the hybrid United Nations and African Union Mission in Sudan (UNMISS) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), no successful peace agreement has been sustained.
The Use of Children Soldiers
Unfortunately, the use of children soldiers is common in many conflicts in Africa. Many groups either abduct or force children to join its ranks while others join for economic or cultural reasons. In the case of South Sudan, it has been reported that approximately 19,000 children, both boys and girls, have participated in the conflict. In 2015 alone, over 2,500 children were recruited by armed groups. According to the Director of Human Rights Watch in Africa, Mausi Segun, both the military and opposing armed groups use child soldiers. Those who resist the recruitment process are maimed, sexually assaulted and/or killed.
Since the conflict reignited in 2013, the UN has negotiated the release of over 2,000 child soldiers. According to their data, more than 10 percent of the released children are under the age of 13. In February, several armed groups released 87 girls and 224 boys to the United Nations while the latest release composed of 85 girls and 112 boys. To celebrate their release, the UN hosted “laying down of the guns” ceremony where they are reunited with their families and given assistance in an attempt to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into the community. It is crucial that efforts are made to assist the young children to overcome the trauma that they have been exposed to.
Long Way to Go
Although the UN and other local organizations have done a tremendous job negotiating the release of child soldiers, human rights groups working in the Eastern African nation and UNICEF have seen an increase in the use of child soldiers. Efforts made by dedicated individuals ensuring that children are not forced into conflict will all be in vain if the national actors (Mr. Kiir, Mr. Machar and their loyalists) do not put much effort to make the situation better for children in South Sudan. Both the opposition and the current government have repeatedly uttered their support, even signing agreements, against the use of children in conflict, although very little effort has been made by each side to lessen this trend. Words alone cannot make the situation better; action is needed. Regional and international actors (U.S.A., Kenya and Uganda) must also place more considerable pressure on both sides to end such inhumane practices.
Unfortunately, at this stage of the conflict, there is no incentive for either the government or the opposition to stop using child soldiers. As explained by the former Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, “much ground made to protect children has been lost. Because there is no cost for this crime, we have seen that yet again, thousands of children have been recruited and used for fighting.” Each setback to political agreements and the renewal of skirmishes between opposing sides is a new excuse to encourage or forcibly recruit children to fight in the civil war.