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OPINION: COVID-19 thwarts efforts to release and reintegrate child soldiers

by Vanessa Saraiva | World Vision - International.
Thursday, 11 February 2021 11:57 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A former child soldier holds a gun as they participate in a child soldiers' release ceremony, outside Yambio, South Sudan, August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Economic fallout from coronavirus could also drive some children back into armed groups

By Vanessa Saraiva, Humanitarian & Protection Advocacy Advisor at World Vision

Tomorrow we mark the international day against the use of child soldiers, Red Hand Day. Around the world, tens of thousands of children are estimated to be recruited into and associated with armed groups – exactly how many is impossible to tell. In 2019, the UN was able to verify over 25,000 grave violations committed against children, including killing and maiming, sexual violence and abductions. Of these violations, over 7,700 girls and boys were recruited and used in conflict, some as young as six years old.

These are horrifying statistics, and sadly the situation is deteriorating. As with so many gains which are being wiped out by COVID-19, progress on ending the use of children in armed conflict has been shattered in the grip of the pandemic.

In South Sudan, for example, the outbreak of coronavirus has resulted in far fewer children than planned being released from armed groups. Disarmament and demobilisation are not as simple as children leaving their ‘duties’, downing their weapons, and walking away. It requires a complex process of negotiations between UN and government officials, and NGOs working in partnership to ensure child protection systems are in place, to locate families, and provide psychosocial counselling and healthcare. It is imperative that robust reintegration support is available to help girls and boys readjust to normal life after months or even years of life ‘in the bush’. But restrictions on NGO activities during COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in only 97 boys and 2 girls released between January and June 2020; far fewer than hoped.

A large part of this comes down to what is – and is not – considered a “life-saving” activity. Humanitarian and protection actors have long advocated for a shift in thinking around this – a need that’s been compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak. When the pandemic struck, aid agencies like World Vision quickly adapted programming to ensure that the communities we work with were protected from the virus. With restrictions placed by governing authorities in country, this often meant we were limited to conducting food distributions and providing healthcare, while other activities were put on hold. Sadly, child protection interventions are all too often neglected when decisions are made as to what is deemed vital.

As a result, in South Sudan family tracing and reunification work was paralysed – with former child soldiers who were released immediately prior to the coronavirus outbreak unable to travel home for months. The continuity of care for those reintegrating back into their communities has been affected – schools and vocational skills training centres have faced extended periods of closure, lockdowns limit the ability of children to travel to program activities, and consequently, their ability to seek help for child protection and gender-based violence violations. Meanwhile case workers who would usually provide crucial one-to-one support have been forced to work remotely.

The situation is fragile and there’s a heightened risk of things spiralling once more – both in South Sudan and beyond, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. The economic impact of COVID-19 – which has hit the families of former child soldiers as it has everyone else – puts girls and boys at risk of ‘voluntarily’ returning to armed groups, lured back by the false sense of security they offer when food is hard to come by at home.

Staggeringly, child protection and the prevention and response of gender-based violence are the two least-funded areas of intervention for humanitarian assistance globally. The impact of COVID-19 will likely see a further fall in funding, as money is diverted to meet the increasing demands of the pandemic. This lack of investment is costing girls and boys their futures.

At World Vision, we’re urging the international community to fully fund appeals for child protection across all humanitarian and refugee response plans – and to use this money to holistically address context-specific needs and to strengthen systems weakened by the pandemic. It’s also crucial that support for children associated with armed conflict continues to be a priority within COVID-19 response and recovery plans. If we neglect this, we are abandoning children when they need us most.

The use of children in armed conflict is a grave violation of rights and a heinous crime committed by both UN state and non-state actors, governments, and international forces. To deny girls and boys their fundamental rights to life, to being heard, protected from violence, cared for by family and educated is a failure on all our parts. We have a legal, and more importantly moral, obligation to protect our future generation.