No one disputes the fact that, over the last 30 years, children have been widely used and recruited by armed actors across South Sudan. The practice goes back at least to the early 1980s, when North and South Sudan, then one country, started to engage in a protracted civil war.
Despite several significant releases of children from fighting forces over the years, the number of children still associated remains in the tens of thousands and the recruitment of children persists.
For a long time in South Sudan (and other conflicts) children associated with armed forces and armed groups were often thought to be boys, with only a sprinkling of girls. This is because people would tend to think of children associated with armed forces and armed groups as 'child soldiers': children carrying and using guns. However, girls were also associated with armed forces and groups in large numbers as domestic helpers (fetching firewood and water, cooking, carrying supplies, and so on) and as 'wives' or sexual slaves. Yet, because they were rarely thought of as 'child soldiers', they were usually not included in demobilization efforts. As a result, of the 25,298 children demobilized between 1998 and 2014 only about 1 per cent were girls. Similarly, of the 1,683 children released in Pibor county in 2015-2018, only 0.5 per cent were girls. It was not until 2018 that the wide presence of girls was publicly acknowledged, and they accounted for 35 per cent of the 745 children released in Yambio.
Non-governmental and state actors alike agree that girls associated with armed forces and armed groups in South Sudan have largely been invisible. Little is known about their number, their experiences 'in the bush', and their needs upon release. With the exception of Yambio in 2018, they have often missed out on demobilization and reintegration programmes, and such programmes, where they exist, have largely been designed for boys. This realization was the starting point of this guide and the research that underpins it.
How the Practical Guide was developed
In this context of growing awareness of the presence of girls in armed forces and groups, UNICEF decided to take steps to fill the knowledge gap. In 2018, at the request of UNICEF, Child Soldiers International, which had recently conducted a similar study in the Democratic Republic of Congo, carried out research on the situation and reintegration needs of girls formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups in South Sudan. The research tried to establish how they were faring after having left the armed forces/groups and were back at home; and their perception of what was helpful to them during their reintegration in their communities.
In August and September 2018, a two-person research team travelled to Juba, Pibor, Bentiu and Yambio, for a period of four weeks. The team met with 48 girls formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups who had either escaped or been unofficially let go; over 150 adults, including members of the government, the United Nations, NGOs, and communities; 23 formerly associated boys; 12 conflict-affected girls who had not been associated; and four families of associated girls (see Annex 2 for table of research participants).
We asked these girls about what had happened to them, before, during and after their association, to learn if and how reintegration assistance could be improved. However, it should be noted that none of the girls we met had benefited from any release and reintegration assistance directly upon their return. This was either because there had not yet been any formal release in their area at the time, or because they had not been identified as 'associated' during the release exercise (see Common Assumptions on page 14). Therefore, some of the advice included in this Guide covers some of the basic principles of release and reintegration (often called DDR).
The objective of the research was to inform and improve reintegration programmes for girls returning from armed forces and armed groups with a Practical Guide based on the past and present experiences of formerly associated girls, and on their suggestions of what would improve their lives.
In December 2018, the research findings were presented at a two-day workshop in Juba. The workshop was attended by 27 DDR representatives from United Nations agencies and NGOs. At that meeting, participants were apprised of and discussed the findings of the research. The group worked together to develop recommendations on specific aspects of reintegration programming for girls, based on the research findings, the voices of the girls, their own experiences, and those of similar reintegration responses in other countries. A draft Practical Guide was developed based on these rich workshop discussions and circulated for comments among participants before being finalized.