Building on the success of our DR Congo work, in September 2018 we began research in South Sudan; meeting girls returned from armed groups, communities and child protection organisations. This research will inform our future work as we plan to develop a Practical Guide which will advise communities and child protection actors on how to further support the girls’ return to civilian life.

Background

The most recent conflict in South Sudan, beginning in December 2013, has had a severe impact on children, with an estimated 19,000 children associated with armed forces and groups, according to UNICEF. There have been positive steps taken in 2018 though with UNICEF facilitating the release of more than 800 children from armed groups and forces as of July this year. 

As the UN prepares for the further release of children in South Sudan this year, it is essential to prepare reintegration support for those children, and particularly girls, who are demobilised. For this purpose, Child Soldiers International will develop contextualised guidance for the DDR of girls which will assist child protection actors working in South Sudan to help girls reintegrate into their communities, recover, and rebuild their lives.

From our research in DR Congo, we know that girls associated with armed groups often experience particular difficulties, which stem from the sexual violence they have suffered in addition to their military duties while in the ranks.

Many of the girls we interviewed as a part of our DRC research were deemed to have “lost value” in the eyes of their community after “having known men” in the bush. With little chance of finding a husband, and without access to education, land, employment or economic resources of their own, they had lost their contributing role and status as a young girl within their families and communities. They were often seen as a burden, resulting in further impoverishment and isolation. This situation may result in a drift back to military life, involvement in criminal activity or a marginal and extremely lonely existence outside of all community life.

While there were some success stories, our research showed that programmes that did exist were ad-hoc, too short term, not adequately resourced and not tailored to girls’ specific needs. At the heart of the problem was the fact that the girls themselves were often rarely listened to – about what they experienced in the armed group, the challenges they faced upon return home or the help they needed to reintegrate into their communities.

Many girls who leave do so on their own accord, because support programmes often have struggled to reach girls. On returning to their communities – fearing stigma and hardship – some girls may choose to conceal their association with fighting forces, and not approach existing assistance programmes. Unfortunately, most programmes have also failed to include clear ways on how to identify girls (and boys) who have self-demobilised.

Our objectives

We believe it is paramount that as more children are released from armed groups in South Sudan – UNICEF has said it will assist in the release of more than 1,000 children in 2018 – the necessary support structures are in place.

Working with UNICEF, our new projects are designed to assist child protection actors working in South Sudan and provide them with contextualised guidelines and materials to help girls reintegrate into their communities, recover, and rebuild their lives.

We conducted initial research in September 2018 during a month-long visit to the country in collaboration with UNICEF and its in-country partners. We collected testimonies of 51 former girl soldiers, and interviewed community members and NGOs about the experiences of girls in armed groups and how they fare once back home.

We discovered that while many children returning from armed conflict are receiving vital reintegration support from UNICEF and others, a significant number - and especially girls – may be missing out on assistance.

Many girls we interviewed were never sent to fight and were made to carry out domestic duties – cooking, cleaning, carrying equipment. As a result, many are not perceived as ‘child soldiers’ by community members back home and may not be encouraged to seek support. In addition, many areas are still highly insecure, leaving large numbers of children beyond the reach of support programmes.

What we'll do next

The long-term goal of this work is to facilitate the release of girls from armed forces and groups in South Sudan, and for all girls to benefit from assistance programmes which match their needs, do not reinforce stigma, and contribute to gender equality. Specific objectives are as follows:

  • Identify any obstacles to providing effective programmes to support the DDR of girls formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups.
  • Assess the capacity of child protection actors to provide quality care for released girls (including to identify girls who may have self-demobilised).
  • Better understand the needs, grievances and hopes of girls formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups to design what would constitute successful DDR.
  • Develop and agree practical interventions for providing DDR assistance to girls, in collaboration with local, national and international child protection actors.
  • Deliver tailored and context-specific practical guidelines on girls’ DDR to UNICEF South Sudan in the form of an illustrated and electronic English Practical Guide.

Our 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 NGOs and government representatives during technical workshops in Juba. We will then start working on new practical guidance to be published in early 2019.