Why should we care about the recruitment and use of child soldiers?
The recruitment and use of child soldiers is a problem that South Sudan is struggling to deal with. The country has been locked in violence ever since it gained independence from Sudan, and thousands of children have been used to fight.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32 states: “A child is to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”.
Furthermore, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which South Sudan is a signatory to, stipulates in Article 16 that: “Children should be protected from all forms of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and especially physical or mental injury or abuse, neglect or maltreatment including sexual abuse.”
Moreover, the South Sudan Child Act 2008 defines a child as a person under the age of 18 and guarantees the protection of children’s rights.
In spite of the global attempts to end the recruitment and use children to fight, thousands of South Sudan’s children are still trapped within armed groups, putting them at risk of death or depriving them of some of the most basic rights. UNICEF estimates that about 19,000 children in South Sudan have been recruited into armed groups since 2013, And the UN agency says only 3,143 children have been released.
A group of journalists from seven media houses in Juba, three media houses in Bor and journalists from Jonglei State’s Ministry of Information were trained by the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) on “storytelling to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers”.
As part of this group, we interviewed a former child soldier during our field visit to Bor in Jonglei State. Mabior, not his real name, abandoned the armed forces to return back to school to pursue his future dreams and aspirations.
We met him sitting under a tree in the center of the schoolyard at his secondary school. He looked calm, but became slightly nervous and unsettled as he recounted the experiences he had when he was a child soldier. “We faced a lot of brutalization because sometimes when you have done something wrong you are beaten thoroughly, and sometimes we slept without food. We were sent to cut grass and cut down some trees for building houses. Those were the roles given to us. And sometimes we were taken to the trainers’ bases to cook and fetch water for them,” he says.
Mabior explains why he joined the armed forces. Among the various reasons he mentions, escaping poverty was a dominant factor. He says it was difficult to resist the influence of powerful community leaders and army officers who promised him a better life. But what was promised was different than the reality. “The pain, and the suffering my family went through was so much,” Mabior adds.
It’s a sentiment Mama Rebecca Ajah agrees with. She is a mother who lost four of her children who joined the armed forces. “It has affected me a lot to lose my children, which now has caused my high blood pressure and diabetes,” she says.
Beyond the grief of her loss, Mama Rebecca Ajah says the persistent threat that other children in her community could be recruited into armed groups has created an atmosphere of fear and anxiety among parents. As for the children that have already been recruited and returned home; she says reintegrating them back into their community and family is another challenge due to the change in their behavior:
“When my children and my brother-in-law’s children returned from the armed forces where they served as child soldiers, they came [back] with strange behaviors. They were drinking alcohol and smoking bhang, and they also struggled with a lot of psychological issues,” she says. “The children were not behaving as normal children,” she added.
According to Dr. Akim Ajith, the Director of Public relations and the Spokesperson for Dr. John Garang Memorial University in Bor, the challenges child soldiers are not over just because they are released.
“When you join the army at a young age, and you see somebody dead before you, it can cause psychological effects. As a result, most people who join the army at a very young age and witnessed these things are not stable. Reintegration itself is one of the hardest things because sometimes some of them become rigid to change,” he says.
John Garang Goch the chairman of the Jonglei Civil Society Network says it requires more interventions from the government in order to prevent the recruitment and use of children as soldiers:
“I wish to call on the government and all stakeholders to address the issue of children holding guns. We have been communicating over the radio, we called parliamentarians to sit on round table meetings on this matter, to see how we can address them effectively.”
Mr. James Auyen, the Focal Person for Child Protection at the Jonglei State Ministry of Gender and Social Services says the Ministry condemns the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Mr. Auyen adds that Ministry officials visit the Malual Chaat military barracks twice a week to monitor if children are enrolled in the army.
Recruiting and using children as soldiers is a violation of Article 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 16 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the South Sudan Child Act 2008.
This violation is punishable by national and international instruments such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).
For example, the former Liberian President Charles Taylor was tried and convicted in April 2012 on 11 charges arising from war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war that started in 1991 and ended in 2002. One of the charges was: “Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities.” Taylor is now serving a fifty-year prison term.
Thomas Lubanga, the former Congolese war lord, was also found guilty by the ICC in 2012 for the war crimes, including “enlisting and conscripting of children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities.” He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Major Gen. Lul Ruai Koang the Spokesperson of the South Sudan People’s Defence Force (SSPDF) says currently the SSPDF do not have child soldiers in their ranks and files of the army, saying it’s the opposition armed forces that recruit and use child soldiers. However, Koang says the SSPDF did have child soldiers in their ranks between 2013 and 2017, but demobilized and released fifteen child soldiers with the support of ICRC and UNICEF. “With the Revitalized Peace Agreement and security arrangement there are mechanisms in place to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers and reunite them with their families,” he says.
Col. Lam Paul Gabriel, the Deputy Spokesman for the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLM/IO), confirms the presence of children in their ranks during the conflicts of 2013 and 2016.
“We have these kids that have been with us, they were caught up in a situation. They didn’t want to join the military but the situation forced them to join and defend themselves. When they are subjected to an attack by either opposition or government forces, they have to defend themselves because if they get caught, people don’t care whether they are children or not. So long as they are found in the territory of the opposite side, they are killed. What we tell them to do is that if you are able to defend yourself well and good, but this is not your war. But with peace signed it’s time to send them home to their families.”
According to section 18.104.22.168. of South Sudan’s Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) that was signed in Addis Ababa on September 12, 2018, all parties shall refrain from: recruitment and/or use of child soldiers by armed forces or militias in contravention of international conventions.”
But despite South Sudan’s strong written laws that protect children from being used in armed forces, their full implementation has still yet to be seen.
Mama Kuei, a parent and a business woman at Maror market in Bor, knows how it feels to lose a child in the war and provides a practical suggestion to help end the practice of child recruitment:
“Give pressure to any person who is not respecting the right of the children because the killing that is happening now also killed children who are not supposed to die at an earlier age. So, I am calling upon the region and the world at large to step in to rescue our lives.’’