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South Sudanese children: “We are not soldiers”

Akim Mugisa
Children in South Sudan have expressed their anger that they face abuse and struggle to access education, especially girls who are often forced to marry underage.
24.06.2016  |  Juba, South Sudan
A child soldier being handed over to the South Sudan DDR Commission, represented by Andrew Oluko Holt on March 27, 2015. (photo: UNMISS | Isaac Billy)
A child soldier being handed over to the South Sudan DDR Commission, represented by Andrew Oluko Holt on March 27, 2015. (photo: UNMISS | Isaac Billy)

“We are not soldiers, our hope is in education,” said children gathered to mark International Day of the African Child at Nyakuron Cultural Centre in the capital Juba. The day was observed under the theme: “Protecting the rights of children in conflict and crises situation.”

During the poorly attended event, the abuse of young people’s rights in South Sudan also took center stage. Children from Angels of Peace Nursery and Primary School, Juba Christian Centre and the Confident Children out of Conflict organisation decried forceful conscription into armed groups, maiming, rape, killing and other crimes.

They added that many schools had been destroyed and children had been displaced or separated from their families during the fighting underway since late 2013, further hindering children's opportunities and lives. “We want peace in our country South Sudan,” children from the Angels of Peace Nursery and Primary School in Juba said.

We want peace in our country South Sudan.

The children condemned early and forced marriages that deprive them, especially girls, the right to education. The South Sudan Child Act 2008 requires government; partners and stakeholders to ensure rights of children are protected and promoted. The act spells out the duties of government and parents in ensuring protection of children from harmful cultural, social and economic practices that endangers their wellbeing, health and realisation of their full potential irrespective of sex, physical abilities and background.

However, the legislation is yet to be implemented and South Sudanese children are afflicted by a lack of access to education, early and forced marriages, blood compensation (girls) and abductions. At least 20 children were abducted in May during tribal clashes between Toposa and Didinga. Thirteen of the victims are still missing according to a member of Namrnyang State Legislative Assembly, Abdalla Angelo Lokilu.

Meanwhile children as young as nine work in the hazardous gold mines of Kapoeta, while their peers roam the streets and markets of the capital Juba, begging, stealing or working as taxi conductors or touts under the nose of lawmakers and enforcement agencies.

Since the outbreak of violence between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those of the former rebel leader, current Vice President Riek Machar, in 2013, many children were enlisted as field combatants, helpers of commanders, porters and messengers. A December 2015 Human Rights Watch report named more than fifteen military commanders from both the national army SPLA and SPLA-IO for having allegedly forced children into their ranks and file.

SPLA Spokesman, Lul Ruai Koang notes that a committee had been formed to monitor the presence of child soldiers in the army. Using children during fighting contravenes South Sudan’s Article 31, Section 2 of the 2008 Child Act which states: “The Government shall ensure that no child shall be used or recruited to engage in any military or paramilitary activities, whether armed or un-armed, including, but not limited to work as sentries, informants, agents or spies, cooks, in transport, as labourers, for sexual purposes, or any other forms of work that do not serve the interests of the child.”

The Act also prescribes a jail term of up to 10 years or a fine or both for any person convicted of involvement in the recruitment of a child into an armed force or use in related activities.

On the eve of this year’s International Day of the African Child, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said it had verified and confirmed the existence of 16,000 children still serving in both SPLA and the opposition forces. The mission’s Spokesperson, Ariane Quentier, affirmed that the Security Council had recorded six grave violations against children through recruitment and use of child soldiers, killing, maiming, sexual violence, attacks on schools, hospitals, abductions and denial of humanitarian access.

It is a war crime to recruit children in armed forces.

Quentier said the children still under the armed forces and groups should be set free to return to their communities and access education. “The presence of children (under 18) in armed conflict is generally prohibited and it is a war crime to recruit children in armed forces under international laws,” she stressed.

Last year, a demobilisation and reintegration programme supported by UNICEF and partners saw an estimated 300 children released in Gumruk, Jonglei State following a peace deal between the government and the Cobra faction of the South Sudan Democratic Army militant group of David Yau Yau who has since rejoined government.

As compared to UN estimates of children still serving in armed groups in South Sudan, as few as 1,750 have reportedly been demobilised or released to return to their communities in the last three years.

Calls by the children at the event in Juba were underscored by the Country Director for War Child Holland, Marina Doris, who said that children have a right to develop in peace and realise their full potential. “Let us create a peaceful environment in which to protect and promote the rights of the young ones,” Marina said, adding that her organisation reached out to conflict affected children, identifying abuse victims, providing psychosocial support and reporting issues to the authorities. The organisation also established child-friendly learning spaces to offer education to the vulnerable.

The minister for Gender, Child and Social Welfare, Awut Deng Achuil, who has retained the same portfolio in two separate cabinet reshuffles since independence, also attended. “It is children who bear the brunt of displacements and being separated from families,” she said. She told the audience of mainly school children, teachers and a handful of partner organisations’ representatives that her ministry was committed to implementing the child’s convention as signed by President Salva Kiir.

Awut disclosed that the institution was also preparing to launch a programme that aims at halting the tradition of early marriages by 2030. She also outlined a policy of sending parents to jail for failing to ensure their offspring attends school.

The Director for Policy and Advocacy at Save the Children, Joseph Akech, noted that the legal framework, especially the so-called The Child Act needs to be implemented in its entirety if children’s rights are to become a reality. Akech explained that in a 2015 report entitled “Hearing from Children”, Save the Children had enabled the young ones voice out their concerns and freely express their needs. “The unity government needs to use the resources available to meet children’s needs and implement programmes that promote their wellbeing,” he said.

During the event, tributes were paid to dozens of Soweto school pupils killed in pursuit of their rights four decades ago during the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

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