In September, Child Soldiers International traveled to South Sudan to interview girls formerly associated with armed groups as we began new research in the country. Working with UNICEF South Sudan, the month-long trip focused on reintegration for girls returning from armed groups and how we may improve or tweak support.

More than 19,000 children have been recruited by government and various opposition forces since South Sudan's latest conflict erupted in late 2013. More than 2,300 children have been killed or injured, while 6.3 million people are food insecure, almost two million are internally displaced and 2.45 million have fled to neighbouring countries.

We met with dozens of girls in Yambio, Pibor and Bentiu who in one way or another ended up in one of the many armed groups. They are now back in their communities or as in the case of Bentiu, at the Protection of Civilians site - a large camp under UN protection.   

Among the girls we spoke to a significant number joined groups 'voluntarily'. Many did so seeking protection or revenge and some did so simply as a route out of poverty and hunger experienced in their home communities. 

Everyone loved the Yau Yau [armed group],” Judith* told us. “My aunt said that everyone was joining and that it was OK to go and help.

The localised, fractured nature of the South Sudan conflict has had a devastating impact on towns and villages. As violence and instability has gripped the country in recent years, some families or even entire communities have been forced to seek out local armed groups together to join them, as the only means of protection available. 

Me and my father went to find the Yau Yau," Grace* explained. "We walked for five days and found them in Malai [Eastern South Sudan]. I saw bad things, people were dying. I was fearing a lot, sometimes I couldn’t bear it and I just laid down on the ground.

Many more children and young people have been, and continue to be forcibly recruited by the country's many armed groups. 

One day men came to our house with canes, my parents managed to escape but they took me, my sister and my brother," one girls told us. "They [SSNLM] took us to Birisi [South-Western South Sudan] where we immediately had to participate... If you didn’t learn fast they would cane you.

In 2017, I was going to the market to sell vegetables I was stopped by soldiers," another recalled of her experiences. "They asked me for money and my phone, I said I didn’t have any. Then they said they would not leave me here and took me to Birisi where they gave me a uniform and shoes to become a soldier.

Great strides forward have been made to release children from armed groups. So far in 2018, 934 children (252 girls) have been officially released through government-facilitated schemes with support from UNICEF and their partners, and more releases are planned. 

However, identifying and reaching children, especially girls who are regularly kept away from frontlines, is a difficult process. What's more, it is critical that communities are made aware of and are involved in reintegration initiatives to ensure returning children are given the necessary support. 

We met with several community members and religious leaders during the visit to listen to their experiences and discuss ways to build on existing support mechanisms within the communities, so as to not only help the children coming home, but strengthen the resilience and cohesion of the whole community. 

This initial research will inform our future work in the country as we continue to work with UNICEF and others to improve reintegration support for returning children. We will return to South Sudan in November to share our findings with local and international NGOs and government representatives at workshops in Juba. 

For more information about our work in South Sudan visit our country page