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KABUL, 26 July (IRIN) - The United Nations has begun demobilising hundreds of child soldiers in western Afghanistan, following a successful demobilisation of more than 4,000 child soldiers in the north, northeast, east and central regions of the country, officials said on Monday.
"We have already made a very big impact and addressed more than we had expected to so far," Ibrahim Sesay, head of child protection for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), said in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
According to UNICEF, there are an estimated 8,000 child soldiers in the entire country. Up to 4,000 boys - the majority aged between 14 and 17 - have already been demobilised and successfully reintegrated in north, northeast, east and central Afghanistan since the programme was first launched in February 2004.
Sesay said that local committees made up of community leaders and local NGOs began work in the western Herat province to identify and assess up to 500 eligible children in mid-July.
UNICEF, for the purposes of the rehabilitation programme, defines a child soldier as a young person under 17 who has been, or still is, active in a military unit with a formal command structure. Each of the demobilised children then receives a package of support. This starts with registration in the programme's database, the issuing of a photo identity card, medical and psychosocial assessments and briefing sessions on mine awareness and reintegration options.
Additionally, all demobilised children are also offered voluntary testing for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
As part of the programme, each demobilised child has the opportunity to participate in a number of reintegration options, including returning to school or enrolling in some form of vocational training programmes. Others still may opt for income generation schemes like farming, sheep herding or poultry.
But despite the progress, there are still some children embedded with local commanders in rural areas of the north, northeast and central regions.
According to local analysts, children are still sexually abused and often made to dance for the entertainment of local commanders.
"One can openly go to a wedding party where commanders force children to dance. Even restaurants play video films of these kind of parties where children dance for customers," Raheem Sadiq, a mechanic in the northeastern city of Pul-e-Khumri claimed.
Sadiq said that because of poverty and the lack of rule of law children continued to suffer violence in rural areas. "Even some senior provincial authorities keep a 'boy' bodyguard," he said.
Meanwhile, a commander for the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan said on Saturday that Taliban-led rebels were being forced to recruit children following the demise of their command structure - despite a recent surge in violence.
"They have been hit so hard they now have to recruit more fighters. They are recruiting younger and younger fighters: 14, 15 and 16 years old," said Maj. General Jason Kamiya, the US military operational commander in Afghanistan.
But UNICEF maintained that with the help of local communities and advocacy programmes, they would try to address children who had been left out of the programme.
"It is quite an unfortunate issue in a situation of armed conflict. We have actually been caught in the middle of all that is going at the moment so we urge those parties that have recruited children to release them unconditionally, so that they could get back to their normal lives," Sesay said.
According to the UN children's agency, of the 4,000 demobilised child soldiers in the country, 1,500 children completed the course and 1,100 have already found employment. Moreover, more than 1,000 also received competency certificates in literacy.
To date, the programme has been operating in 17 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. After completion in the west, the programme is expected to begin in the south.
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