By Laure Kimbimbi
Social Connectedness Fellow
A few months ago, Jeffrey Gettleman wrote a piece in the New York Times about Duop, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had recently been reunited with his family after surviving numerous abuses and witnessing atrocities. Stories like these remind us of the numerous challenges facing children associated with armed forces and groups (CAAFAGs) — commonly known as child soldiers — if and when they are able to return home to their communities.
It has been estimated that over 115,000 child soldiers worldwide have been released since 2000.[i] In 2015 alone, about 8,000 children were released in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar.[ii] Unsurprisingly, former child soldiers often suffer from a range of long-term emotional and physical problems as a result of their traumatic and isolating experience.[iii] In her pivotal 1996 report on the impact of armed conflict on children, Mozambican politician and humanitarian Graça Machel highlighted the psychological consequences afflicting survivors due to the disruption of their social networks and primary relationships.
While integral to peacebuilding, reintegrating former child soldiers into their communities is no easy task. In some cases, it may be impossible if family members are killed or displaced, and other social ties must be relied on for connection.[iv] In other cases, upon returning to their communities, children may be shunned and excluded due to the stigma they often face, which, in turn, hinders their opportunity and ability to rebuild their lives.
Stigmatization occurs because of the role child soldiers are forced to play as perpetrators of violence, which can incite fear among communities. Girls in particular may face stigmatization, as Child Soldiers International highlights, due to their association with armed groups and potential sexual abuse.
However challenging, rebuilding connectedness among members of communities that have been torn apart by armed conflict is crucial for the achievement of development goals; failure can negatively impact countries’ economic development and social cohesion in the long term.[v] Moreover, inadequate support for former child solders could lead to their involvement in criminal activities, or them being re-recruited by armed groups.[vi]
Many organizations advocate for rehabilitation and reintegration programs that are participatory, inclusive of all children and community-based, as this increases the likelihood of reducing tensions. Community-based approaches may be characterized by family reunification, social support and the opportunity to participate in civil life. As expressed by Virginie Ladisch, who leads the Children and Youth program at the International Center for Transitional Justice: “Ultimately, reintegration and reparation programmes for former child soldiers aim to provide children and youth with the necessary support to become active and engaged members of a peaceful society.”
In April 2016, Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, published a hopeful piece about the important links between children affected by war and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As she argued, international efforts to achieve the SDGs have the potential to improve the lives of all children, but especially those impacted by armed conflict. Thus, it is important for us all to support and promote the SDGs however we can so that steps are taken to build more resilient and inclusive societies that leave no one behind.
[i]. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. “Child Recruitment and Use”. https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/effects-of-conflict/six-grave-violations/child-soldiers/ Accessed 3 July 2017
[ii]. Zerrougui, Leila. “Sharing best practices on psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration in the field”. 11 July 2016 https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/statement/rehabilitation-and-reintegration-of-children-affected-by-armed-conflict-sharing-best-practices-on-psychosocial-rehabilitation-and-social-reintegration-in-the-field/ Accessed 3 July 2017
[iii]. “Child Recruitment and Use”. https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/effects-of-conflict/six-grave-violations/child-soldiers/
[iv]. Harvey, Rachel. “Children and Armed Conflict: A guide to international humanitarian and human rights law”. https://www.essex.ac.uk/armedcon/story_id/000044.pdf Accessed 3 July 2017
[v]. Zerrougui, Leila. “Sharing best practices on psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration in the field”. 11 July 2016.
[vi]. Harvey, Rachel. “Children and Armed Conflict”.