FREETOWN, 28 February (Office of Special Representative) - At the conclusion of a week-long visit to Sierra Leone (22-28 February), Under-Secretary-General Olara A. Otunnu, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, has called upon the international community to continue to support the country in the peace-building period so that the impressive gains made so far in the rehabilitation and protection of war-affected children can be strengthened and sustained.
The objective of the Special Representative's visit - his first since the decade-long conflict ended in January 2002 - was to assess progress made in the protection of children since his three previous missions to the country in 1998, 1999 and 2000. He also examined new challenges facing the nation's children in the aftermath of conflict. During his travels, Mr. Otunnu noted that Sierra Leone had undergone a "dramatic transformation" since his earlier visits, with the restoration of peace and security throughout the country. Among the factors behind the transformation, he said, was the close collaboration between the Government, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), the United Nations Country Team, and civil society.
The attainment of peace had enabled considerable progress to be made for Sierra Leone's children. Since May 2001, close to 7,000 child ex-combatants have been demobilized, 97 per cent of whom have now been reunified with their families and communities. Children and their families who were displaced internally or in neighbouring countries have been resettled. School enrolment has increased by 43 per cent from the 2000-2001 academic year. A strong network of child-protection agencies at national and local level has worked to provide a range of assistance to children affected by the conflict. The newly established National Commission for War-Affected Children will ensure that the concerns of war-affected children are translated into policy, priority setting and resource allocation at the national level. The Voice of Children initiative, radio programming for and by children, aims to include children and youth more systematically in national discourse.
In addition, child protection has been well integrated into the UNAMSIL peace mission, with the presence on staff of child-protection advisers and ongoing training of peacekeepers in child rights and child protection. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone will pay particular attention to children's experiences during the conflict and are putting in place special procedures for the protection of potential child witnesses.
Yet, Mr. Otunnu noted, tremendous challenges lay ahead - some a legacy of the decade-long conflict and others linked to persistent poverty. Uppermost is the education sector, where many classrooms require repair or rehabilitation, there are acute shortages of teaching materials, and teaching staff need training and adequate remuneration. Another is the condition and dire needs of the disabled, particularly the amputees and other war-wounded. A third area of concern is the extensive use of children as labour in diamond mining, preventing their schooling.
Mr. Otunnu noted that child labour and other social ills aggravated by the war, for example, growing numbers of street children and an increase in child prostitution, are linked to pervasive poverty and dramatic disparities in development between urban centres and the rural areas. He also drew attention to the particular plight and vulnerability of girls. Many girls associated with the fighting forces were bypassed in the disarmament process and ostracized from their families and communities. Many others are victims of sexual abuse and violence, with an inadequate response by the judicial system.
Instability in the subregion was another area of concern the Special Representative identified, with potential recycling of Sierra Leonean child ex-combatants in the conflicts in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire. Meeting with Liberian refugee children living in Sierra Leone, he called on regional leaders and the broader international community to redouble their efforts to bring peace to the subregion, which would help stem the cross-border recruitment of children.
During his mission, Mr. Otunnu travelled to the northern towns of Makeni and Magburaka, to the eastern towns of Koidu and Daru, and to Bo in the south. He visited schools, reintegration programmes for child ex-combatants, community-based child welfare committees, and children's and youth organizations, as well as amputees and war-wounded. He also toured diamond-mining sites, and the Jimmy Bagbo camp where over 6,400 Liberian refugees reside.
In Freetown, the Special Representative held discussions with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and senior government ministers, as well as with the Executive Secretary and newly appointed commissioners of the National Commission for War-Affected Children. He participated in the inauguration of the Commission and launched the Voice of Children, both initiatives he had proposed in his 1999 "Agenda for Action for the Children of Sierra Leone". He also met with Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sierra Leone, and senior UNAMSIL officials, representatives of United Nations agencies, the Special Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and with a wide range of non-governmental and civil society organizations involved in child protection.
Both in Freetown and in the field, Mr. Otunnu interacted extensively with children and youth, including meetings with the Children's Forum Network advocacy group, the Voice of Children, and children's clubs and associations throughout the country. These children's groups are vocal advocates on child rights and participation, HIV/AIDS, street children, child prostitution and other issues.
"The tremendous dynamism, intelligence and creativity of Sierra Leonean children - despite their terrible suffering during the war - is among the nation's hidden strengths. We must invest in these children", Mr. Otunnu said. He also enumerated other strengths of Sierra Leonean society, such as national unity, religious tolerance, a vibrant civil society, and rich natural resources, including fertile land, as a basis for building peace and development.
The youth, the Special Representative noted, represent a tremendous resource for the future of the country. However, many missed out on education due to the war and suffer from a lack of employment opportunities. "How to make them peace-builders, instead of potential spoilers" of the newly won peace, he said, is a major challenge. Every effort must be made to harness their potential and to engage them actively and constructively in the reconstruction process, including the speedy adoption and concerted implementation of a national youth policy, as well as programmes targeting and benefiting young adults. Women, in particular, could benefit from initiatives to enable them to generate income, such as microcredit, especially for agriculture.
Mr. Otunnu also urged the Government and international community to establish special programmes and provide opportunities for the amputees, including provision of education for their children, and called for the development of alternatives - education and skills training - for children working in the mines, starting with a sensitization campaign of children themselves, their families and mining bosses.
Efforts must also be undertaken, the Special Representative said, to expand programmes benefiting children and improve social services in the rural areas to counter the abject poverty afflicting families, which, in turn, causes children to work in the streets, to beg or to prostitute themselves. And with children all over the country expressing their desire to attend school, Mr. Otunnu said, a major effort is needed by Government and international partners to improve on low enrolment rates and conditions in schools.
The Special Representative stressed that the gains for children that have been made must be consolidated and strengthened by the Government and people of Sierra Leone. Thanking donors for their generous commitment to Sierra Leone, Mr. Otunnu urged the international community to "stay the course" during the critical phase of peace-building in the country.
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