Every year on February 12, the world commemorates the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hand Day. We recognize this day, to not only ask governments for support in ending the practice of using children in armed forces and militia groups, but also to draw attention to the challenges faced by children who have returned home from war, and the support they need to reclaim their childhoods.
While physical wounds heal rather fast, mental damage is often overlooked and delays or hinders recovery after the trauma of being abused by armed forces and armed groups. Many children struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after taking part in or witnessing violent and traumatic things that only happens in adults’ worst nightmares.
Additionally, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 138 and 182 – which is also reflected in UNICEF Canada’s Child Rights and Security Handbook (Criteria 7) - state that children under age 18, or age 16 under strict conditions, should not do any hazardous work. This means that children should not be engaged for security or military purposes, due to the risk it poses to them, including but not limited to engagement in conflict, services for military or security forces and procurement for military or security forces.
For Red Hand Day/International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, we share the stories of three former child soldiers from South Sudan, as well as answer important questions about the protection of children returning from combat.
How many children are used by armed forces and groups in South Sudan?
The number of children being used by armed forces and armed groups follows the political situation, as that influences the ‘need’ for children in the ranks. It is also strongly linked to poverty, as joining an armed group can seem like the only viable option for some. It is also difficult to determine the age of children as birth registration stands at only 35 per cent. Children are recruited, escape and are being released without anyone being notified. The South Sudan Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting has verified the recruitment and use of 6,290 children since 2013. However, the actual number is probably higher. 3,785 have been released and reintegrated back into their communities
“In my nightmare, soldiers are chasing me”
What are some of the challenges children face after returning home?
Some have been involved in fighting for years and some suffered physical, social and psychological problems. Many are struggling with PTSD and experience symptoms as insomnia, continuing nightmares, anger and distress.
Reintegrating the children into their families and communities can be a long and challenging process. Some face stigma due to the activities they have been involved in and families are scared that retribution can affect other family members.
Many children have never been to school and don’t have basic numeracy and literacy skills and few opportunities in life.
“They beat me and order[ed] me to kill my dad”
How is UNICEF and partners helping children overcoming these challenges?
The UNICEF-supported reintegration programme is focused on intense immediate support and long-term psychosocial support. Every child is given a dedicated social worker who will help the children to cope with what they have experienced and make plans for the future. After an assessment, a plan is made for every child and the social worker sees the plan through.
The social worker also negotiates with families and communities with the aim of creating acceptance of the child and provide and build a support system around the child. UNICEF also supports children with education and vocational training, and works with partners on family tracing and reunification to make families whole again.
“In my dreams, the commander orders me to kill...”
What is the current funding situation for the demobilization and reintegration programmes in South Sudan?
The UNICEF-supported reintegration programme has been underfunded the last few years.
For 2020, UNICEF South Sudan appealed for USD 4.2 million, and was able to secure 27 per cent of the required amount, including support from UNICEF Canada, Denmark, France, Norway, Spain and the US. Support for the program is also provided by the EU, ECHO, USAID, the US special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.
However, the program still remains severely underfunded and as a result, several children who have escaped or are released from armed entities do not have regular access to a social worker, don’t have any access to education nor vocational training and are still lacking basic items such as a mattress to sleep on.
In 2021, UNICEF is appealing for US$ 4 million to support the release and reintegration of 2,000 children associated with armed forces and armed groups.
For Red Hand Day, and every day, the right of every child to live free from harm and conflict.