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International Day to End the Use of Child Soldiers

Every child deserves the opportunity to play, laugh and learn; to explore and grow in a world that nurtures them. Tragically though, UNICEF estimates that tens of thousands of boys and girls under the age of 18 are used in conflicts worldwide.

Many have been taken by force, while others join due to economic or social pressure. Children who are displaced or living in poverty are even more vulnerable to recruitment. Children are recruited or used for various functions by armed forces and groups, including as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers and spies, or they are subjected to sexual exploitation.

The Story of a Former Child Soldier: Ishmael Beah

In 1991, the outbreak of a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone uprooted the lives of millions, including that of Ishmael Beah and his family. His parents and two brothers were killed and he was forcibly recruited into the war at age 13. Beah was forced to fight for the government army against the rebels. He was heavily influenced by various ways of brainwashing and drugs like amphetamines and cocaine that they gave him and the other child soldiers.

After two years and with UNICEF’s help, Beah was released from fighting forces, along with other children. He was placed into a rehabilitation home in Freetown where he received psychosocial support to begin to recover from the trauma.

A Long Way Gone

Today, Ishmael Beah is is the New York Times bestselling author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and Radiance of Tomorrow: A Novel, and UNICEF’s first Advocate for Children Affected by War.

In accepting the position Mr. Beah said, “… for me it’s just a way to give me more strength to continue doing what I’ve already embarked on, what I’ve dedicated my life to doing – which is to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t continue to happen to other children around the world.” He pledged to give a voice and hope to children whose lives have been scarred by violence.

[© UNICEF/UNI127522/Sokol]

Beah has made several visits to South Sudan, Africa to advocate for the release of children forced into armed conflict, and to help begin the transformation of the lives of those able to put down their weapons. 

"Over the past week, I have met with former child fighters who have now laid down their weapons and they are clear about their wishes for the future,” said Beah of one of his first visits. “They want peace, education and a better future.”

What is Being Done to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers?

Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, who commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1994, and wrote the book Shaking Hands with the Devil, is the founder of The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, with a mission to end the use of children in armed conflict.

Dallaire called upon his own experiences, and his belief that children must be protected. “There has to be a sense of urgency to protect children in South Sudan from being used by armed forces and groups and to ensure that the thousands already serving are immediately released and have opportunities for a better future.” He also met with some of the 1,755 children whom UNICEF recently helped free from one of the battling factions.

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[© UNICEF/UN0272641/Holt]

Futures Lost and Found

One hundred and nineteen children were released by an armed group in South Sudan in early February 2019, bringing the total number of those freed since the conflict began to more than 3,100. Forty-eight girls were among the group, with the youngest child only 10 years old.

“Every child no longer with an armed group represents a childhood restored and a future regained,” said UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, who visited South Sudan in January last year. “More and more children are being freed from armed groups and armed forces in South Sudan, and while this is an encouraging development, there is a long way to go before all of the more than 19,000 children still in their ranks are returned to their families.”

Since February 2018, more than 1,000 children have been released by various armed groups. 

During the process, each child was registered and provided with a certificate stating they were no longer affiliated with the group. They then met with social workers, health workers and education specialists to assess their immediate needs. They were also provided with a reintegration package including clothes, shoes, and other basic commodities.

As with other groups, each child is provided with three years of reintegration support to assist their return to civilian life and prevent re-recruitment. For each released child assisted, one vulnerable child and their family from the host community is also supported to foster acceptance and promote a more sustainable reintegration. 

For International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers - also known as Red Hand Day - UNICEF calls on all parties involved in conflicts to recommit themselves to upholding  the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and to ensuring that children are never soldiers.