Recruited but not ‘child soldiers’: Returning girls in South Sudan risk being left without support
Ahead of International Day of the Girl on 11 October, we share preliminary findings from our recent research trip to South Sudan and call for a renewed focus on reintegration support for girls returning from the long-running conflict.
London, 10 October 2018 - Girls associated with armed groups in South Sudan risk missing out on vital reintegration assistance as they are either unaware of available support or are overlooked as they don’t fit the profile of a ‘child soldier’.
More than 19,000 child soldiers have been recruited since 2013 and while the total number of girls is unclear, of 934 children officially released in 2018, almost 30% were girls.
However, in collaboration with UNICEF, Child Soldiers International has learnt that girls in some areas, especially those leaving groups independently, risk not benefiting from reintegration support, simply because they are not known or considered as potential beneficiaries.
During a month-long research trip in September 2018, we collected testimony of 51 former girl soldiers, community members and NGOs about the experiences of girls in armed groups and how they fare once back home.
The lack of assistance afforded girls in some areas of the country can be explained by several factors.
Many girls we interviewed were never sent to fight and were made to carry out domestic duties – cooking, cleaning, carrying equipment – roles often not viewed as association with armed groups by local communities.
Mary* was abducted by anti-government forces on her way to market in 2014: “When we arrived they gave us work. I was assigned to cook for the boss. I had to wash his clothes and cook for him. We had walked for so long and I didn’t know where we were. I was trained in handling the gun but never used it.”
Several girls interviewed were taken as ‘wives’ and some suffered horrific abuse. “When the commander went out, the men would force the girls to sleep with them. You didn’t have a choice,” said one 16-year-old girl who was abducted by opposition forces in February 2018 and fled after three months.
Even after such experiences many are not perceived as ‘child soldiers’ by community members back home and may not be encouraged to seek support. This is unfortunately not an uncommon issue and has been observed in many other countries such as DR Congo and Sierra Leone.
In addition, many areas are still highly insecure, leaving many children beyond the reach of support programmes.
Sandra Olsson, programme manager at Child Soldiers International, said: “The children of South Sudan are among the most persecuted in this brutal conflict; exploitation by armed groups remains a shocking reality for thousands.
“Supporting their release and reintegration is an ominous task made even more difficult in such a hostile climate where humanitarian workers have often been targeted by armed actors.
“However, there is a real danger that many children, especially girls, are being left on the margins of support programmes for children associated with armed groups. More needs to be done to help communities and civil society recognise these girls, and to work together to change the narrative around perceptions of a ‘child soldier’. In doing so we can ensure that all children are given appropriate, sustained support to improve their reintegration back home.”
Globally, the role of girls in armed groups has long been overlooked. It is partly down to cultural understanding whereby girls’ involvement in armed conflict is seen as less direct than boys, and thus often not perceived as a threat to communities more concerned with potentially violent boys. As a result, girls have often been excluded from demobilisation and reintegration initiatives.
In communities defended by local militias, children and their families are likely to join ‘voluntarily’ – for protection, revenge or survival – and then leave or escape independently. Identifying and supporting self-demobilised children remains a challenge in many armed conflicts today.
Aged 10, Judith* joined the rebel group led by David Yau Yau along with her aunt, grandmother and several cousins in 2014: “Everyone loved the Yau Yau,” she said. “My aunt said that everyone was joining and that it was OK to go and help.”
Judith says she was “afraid all the time” in the group during the year-long stay. One evening government forces attacked their camp and Judith’s cousin, her husband and two children were murdered. That was when Judith, her grandmother and aunt decided to escape.
She returned home in 2015 and was welcomed by community members but received no immediate external support. Only this year has she started a vocational training scheme run by an NGO.
The fractured nature of South Sudan’s conflict has made identifying returning children like Judith a challenging and dangerous task. In addition, the number of children still within the ranks of armed groups is very high, and several areas remain unsafe, leaving many children beyond the reach of support actors.
It was reported in September that 382,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2013, while 6.3 million people are food insecure, almost two million are internally displaced and 2.45 million have fled to neighbouring countries.
The government forces and three non-state armed groups in opposition were listed as guilty of recruiting child soldiers in 2017, according to the UN.
However, progress is being made. The release of more than 900 children so far in 2018 is a positive step and reintegration support facilitated by the government, UNICEF and their partners is having an important impact.
The signing of a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar in September is welcomed but it remains to be seen if it will lead to tangible change for the civilians of South Sudan. Meanwhile, the signing of OPAC – the UN treaty outlawing recruitment and use of child soldiers – in September indicates an appetite for progress.
UN special representative on Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba has called the civil war a “children’s crisis”, saying only if the international community and the national authorities in South Sudan work with all actors, including children and the communities themselves, can we halt the cycle of recruitment and ensure all children are given the support they need to rebuild their lives.
Child Soldiers International’s research in the country will continue in 2018 as we work to help improve reintegration practices for children returning from armed groups.
*Names changed to protect identities