Southern child soldiers "need more opportunities"

Southern Sudan’s promise to divest its army of all children by November has to be backed by a comprehensive strategy to give them opportunities in civilian life, say analysts.

"People, even children, need alternatives," Obwaha Claude Akasha, acting director-general for operations at the Southern Sudanese Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, said. “Many children joined the army because their parents couldn’t afford to feed or support them. They need to see that it is better being out of the army than in it.”

At the launch of the Southern Sudan People's Army (SPLA) Child Protection Unit on 30 August in Juba, General James Hoth Mai, chief of staff, said the army was doing its part to rid its ranks of children, but he warned that the former child soldiers might return to barracks if alternatives to life in the army were not available or adequate.

“[What] we are doing now is... social work, social welfare. We are taking care of children and the elderly,” Mai told members of the international community working on DDR in Southern Sudan. “And we have been crying, ‘you people help us, take these categories [of combatants] away from us’.”

Effective demobilization, he added, was a “huge task” for which the army and the international community needed to prepare.

"Concrete measures must now be taken to ensure that all within the SPLA understand and respect their obligations," the UN Children’s Fund's (UNICEF) Catherine Mbengue said at the launch.

Family support

Among other needs, the demobilized child soldiers require institutions to support them and their families, UNICEF child protection officer Samuel Manyok said. As a result, social welfare programmes that benefit communities where child soldiers have returned in large numbers should be holistic and not solely targeted at ex-combatants, he added.

The interim reinsertion support for ex-combatants consists of a cash grant of US$320, non-food items and a voucher for three months’ worth of food for a family of five, but they are expected to use their own means to return to their places of origin or wherever they wish to settle.

"When the salary stops coming and the food runs out, the child himself may feel pressure to return to the army in order to provide for his family," Manyok added.

The Northern and Southern Sudanese armies have committed to demobilizing 90,000 soldiers each in one of the largest DDR efforts in the world. The child programme, while separate, is ambitious, given that even determining the number of child soldiers is difficult. A recent UNICEF estimate put the number at 900, but SPLA spokesman Kuol Deim Kuol said there were 100.

An estimated 20,000 children were demobilized from the SPLA between 2001 and April 2006, according to the Child Soldiers Global Report 2008. While they returned to their families and communities, an estimated 2,000 children were still associated with the SPLA, mainly in non-combat roles and in remote areas.

Some of the children joined the SPLA "from other armed groups which have aligned [with the army] and brought children with them”, after signing the peace agreement that ended conflict between the north and south in 2005, DDR commission officials said.

Complex issue

The UN Office of the Special Representative of Children and Armed Conflict notes that reintegrating “children in situations of armed conflict is a complex and long-term proposition”. This is particularly true in Sudan, which has been at war for most of its independent history.

''Many ex-combatants indicate that they ‘deserve their share’ in terms of economic benefits, respect, and status''

Education for the demobilized children, for example, is a problem because there are not enough schools in Southern Sudan. Even then, “many of the parents will not be able to pay school fees for their children once they have returned from the army”, Manyok told IRIN.

The DDR commission operates reintegration centres with training facilities in four of the 10 states, but these do not always succeed in attracting demobilized children. As a result, Akasha told IRIN, cases of demobilized children succeeding in developing new skills were rare.

According to the Small Arms Survey, alternative employment opportunities are limited in rural areas, mainly because of poor infrastructure: there are few roads or other means of transport, and a lack of electricity, financial institutions and investment.

"Many ex-combatants indicate that they ‘deserve their share’ in terms of economic benefits, respect, and status," the Survey said in a June paper. "Returning to their villages without wealth or a regular income, and becoming a burden on their families rather than supporting them, will undermine their self-esteem."

Yet, it added, the “ex-combatants’ high expectations of ‘compensation’ for the war effort are unlikely to be met given that the communities into which they will be integrating are no better off”.

On 19 July, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported that "despite the progress made in identifying and registering children for demobilization, their numbers remain significant”. The risk associated with the demobilization of increasing numbers of former combatants without suitable reintegration programmes, he added, was a serious security concern.