UN Special Representative at first-ever national child protection conference: “Children are children are children”
The journey towards a South Sudan where children’s rights to protection, from armed conflict and other evils, are fully respected has been a long one. In fact, it has far from ended.
This week, however, the road that has been travelled reached a long-awaited landmark, and one that is hoped to build momentum towards the destination: a first-ever, three-day-long national conference on children and armed conflict, with all relevant stakeholders present.
“The important thing is to make up one’s mind that children should never be used and abused in any situation of armed conflict. That is my key advocacy message: children are children are children,” said Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, who was attending the unique gathering.
Unfortunately, being a boy or girl in South Sudan is often more of a struggle than child’s play. As in many impoverished countries, malnutrition is common, access to education patchy with girls often being denied it altogether, domestic violence is rife and child labour is ubiquitous.
Add to that the complications observed in many a war-torn nation: plenty of children grow up with one or both parents having been killed, enduring frequent displacements, facing a lack of psychosocial support and prospects for the future, and, quite possibly, being surrounded by armed conflict or intercommunal violence as well.
In this context, children become vulnerable to being used and recruited by armed groups, killed or maimed, abducted or sexually abused, or to see schools and hospitals coming under attack, or humanitarian access being denied. In South Sudan, boys and girls are still being subject to these acts, known as the six grave violations against children in the context of armed conflict.
“There is little in the way of ID papers and documentation of their age, which is both a reason why children are still being recruited and some boys and girls approach armed groups and lie about their age to become a part of them,” Ms. Gamba commented in an interview with the peacekeeping mission’s Radio Miraya.
The picture may look bleak, made worse by the impunity that perpetrators of violations routinely enjoy, but progress has been made. Most of it has happened since a comprehensive action plan to stop and prevent violations against conflict-affected children was signed, in February 2020, by the United Nations and South Sudan’s government.
While a majority of those affiliated with armed group are likely to still be in that situation, several hundreds of boys and girls have been released and put into reintegration support structures. Child protection focal points have been appointed, age assessment exercises among troops have been allowed to go ahead and high-level committees tasked with overseeing the implementation of the action plan have been set up, at both the national and the state level. Joint Verification Committees, comprising all parties to the conflict, is another addition to the measures taken thus far.
The 2018 signing of another essential document, the revitalized peace agreement, has also greatly contributed to the cause of child protection.
“Incidents of all the six grave violations have been significantly reduced between 2018 and 2020, and this is something that will no doubt encourage all the stakeholders gathered at the conference,” said Alfred Orono Orono, Head of the peacekeeping mission’s Child Protection Unit.
In terms of known cases of boys and girls being used and recruited, for example, the 2020 figure was down to 161 from 1,221 in 2018. This, according to Mr. Orono Orono, is the result of years of capacity building of thousands of troops across the country, including national security, military justice officials and local chiefs.
At the conference, stakeholders from all over South Sudan have taken stock of the implementation of the comprehensive action plan and potential gaps in legislation and policies related to the protection of children. Together, participants have pondered how to best move forward the process of better protecting the country’s sons and daughters, resulting in a few concrete recommendations.
Partly because of some work having been delayed by the long-lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the experts decided to extend the deadline for the implementation of the action plan by one year, till August 2023.
Much of that extra year will be spent on more awareness-raising outreach activities among communities, but also to ensure that formal justice mechanisms are swiftly deployed to adjudicate any cases related to violations of children’s rights across the country. And facing the full force of the justice perpetrators will, as it was also decided to further emphasize the zero tolerance of any violations. To achieve all of this, those in attendance recommended increased funding for child protection activities.
Maybe these and future action points will lead to the fulfillment of one of Virginia Gamba’s dreams.
“I would love to see South Sudan taking the lead in regional and international efforts to draw attention to the problem and become an African champion for the protection of children from war,” she said, adding that listening to the South Sudanese children themselves will be key to being successful.
At the conference, the Special Representative also put a modest wish into poignant words:
“I imagine a South Sudan where a child is handed a pencil and a school uniform instead of a gun and a battledress; where a girl can run an errand without running the risk of being gang-raped, and where children can play safely, without having to fear that the toy they just picked up is in fact an explosive remnant of war.”