UNICEF has been in discussion with the SLM/A for several months prior to today's agreement, and UNICEF Representative in Sudan Ted Chaiban applauded the decision by the SLM/A to begin identifying and handing over children.
"Today we are thankful that for many children in Darfur the process of rebuilding their lives can begin," he said. "Every day these children have been associated with armed groups has been a day of childhood lost."
The agreement signed between the SLM/A and UNICEF commits the SLM/A to identify locations where children are associated with its armed groups within one month, prior to a joint verification of children by the SLM/A and the United Nations. UNICEF, in collaboration with Government and local and international NGOs, will support the provision of family tracing and community reintegration programmes, along with training of SLM/A field commanders on international child rights and protection standards. Demobilized children will benefit from life skills and vocational training opportunities, education support, psycho social activities such as recreation, sports and career guidance, as well as the assistance of social workers who will monitor and ensure follow-up of children during the reintegration process.
Exact numbers of children associated with armed forces and groups in Darfur are unclear, as monitoring and reporting has been difficult due to limited access to conflict areas. However, UNICEF estimates that at least 7,000 children could be linked to various armed forces and groups in the region, either as combatants or serving in ancillary roles such as porters, cooks, messengers and bodyguards.
"Today's agreement with the SLM/A is only the start of the process," noted Ted Chaiban. "It will take time for children to be properly identified and appropriate reintegration programmes to be established, but I hope we will now see real efforts to turn this agreement into tangible action for children, and that others will now agree to hand over children that may be attached to their own forces. These children are amongst the most vulnerable in Darfur, and they must be given the chance to go home, and take back their childhood."
In January 2007 UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Ms. Rhadhika Coomaraswamy and former UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah met with signatories and non-signatories to the Darfur Peace Agreement to urge their commitment to demobilization of children, and today's signing ceremony was officially witnessed by Acting Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General Mr. Oluseyi Bajulaiye. The recruitment and use of children by parties to armed conflict is outlawed by a number of UN Resolutions and by an Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Sudan is a signatory. Sudan's draft Armed Forces Act also criminalises the recruitment of those under 18 years old into the armed forces.
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