While calls are made from the UN to end child abuse at its worst: the recruitment of children as soldiers; many others are silenced with guns, beatings, rape, forced labor or with invisible and inaudible threats. Although the most urgent calls are in reference to Africa, it can by no means be said that this is a reality exclusive to this continent. To state otherwise would be an outright lie.
In the context of February 12, International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, Virginia Gamba, UN Special Representativeof theSecretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, called on the international community to provide more support to end the recruitment of minors in war.
During 2017, more than 5,000 children used in armed conflicts were released and reintegrated into society. But this is only a partial victory, as tens of thousands are still used, sometimes even in suicide attacks.
A press release from Gamba’s office stressed: “Once released, these children still have to face the complex and long reintegration process into their communities, a decisive step for their wellbeing which also contributes to end the cycles of violence.”
Despite continued challenges, there was also encouraging news earlier in February, as the UN mission in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, welcomed the release of hundreds of child soldiers, who had been forcibly conscripted by armed groups in the west.
Within the first group of liberated children (a total of 311) in the city of Yambio, there were 87 girls, highlighting the gender violence that simultaneously occurs in such conflict zones.
“This is the first time so many young women have been involved in a release like this in South Sudan,” noted David Shearer, head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS.
He added that a total of 700 children have been registered for release in phases, of which 137 are associated with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army In-Opposition (SPLA-IO), while the majority, 563, are from the South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLM).
In this country specifically, the strategies have to be even more encompassing, due to the impact of the conflict that began in 2013, in which a least 100,000 children have indirectly suffered the effects of recruitment, exploitation and abuse, among other extreme violations.
In addition, over two million children have been forced to leave their homes. They have had to endure the terrible situation of displacement, both internally in their country and in international refugee camps.
According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), released in 2017, since the beginning of the aforementioned conflict, 19,000 children have been recruited by South Sudanese armed groups.
UNICEF warned that an entire generation of children remains at risk of dying or, at best, of being injured and condemned to suffer from hunger and disease. This situation stems from their previous risk of being recruited and displaced, with consequences such as not receiving an education.
If we pause to think about the situation of girls, especially those who have suffered gender violence and sexual exploitation, and have lost all hope, it is clear that they require extra support to recover from their experiences and start over.
These children must be shown that there is hope beyond conflict, that they can live in peace and security, and achieve their dreams. But firstly, they must regain their ability to dream.
Overall figures show that the recruitment and use of children was reported in all 20 of the conflict situations covered by the United Nations and, 61 parties to conflict out of 63 were listed for using children in the 2016 Annual Report of the UN Secretary-General, despite the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, 18 years ago. The protocol sets the minimum age for recruitment into armed forces in conflict at 18 and has been ratified by 167 states.
However, this is not the only form of violence against children to affect the world. Other forms are silent and more evasive. Communities such as those of African descent, indigenous people, the disabled, face daily violence. Examples are not lacking.
In Latin America, even some of those countries that have embraced the ideas outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child still lack laws to protect children’s rights.
One such country, Chile, last year approved a bill to create a System of Guarantees of the Rights of Children, but this is yet to pass through its Senate.
Faced with these legal gaps, UNICEF has urged signatory countries to act swiftly to bring domestic legislation into line with the international Convention. Only in this way can the rights of children be respected in circumstances of violence or discrimination of different types, to which Afro-descendant and indigenous communities and children with disabilities are more vulnerable.
After an intense evaluation since January of the situation facing children in Panama, another of the Latin American countries lacking a law to protect children, a UN expert ruled that violence against children is deep-rooted in Panamanian society.
Meanwhile, in Europe and the United States, many children beg in the streets, and it is not hard to find minors - immigrants or not – working to escape their poverty.
The current situation emphasizes the responsibility of the entire world to ensure children’s rights are respected.
FIVE ASPECTS HIGHLIGHTED BY UNICEF:
1- Children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools and playgrounds.
2- In conflicts around the world, children have become frontline targets, used as human shields, killed, maimed and recruited to fight. Rape, forced marriage, abduction and enslavement have become standard tactics.
3- In some contexts, children abducted by extremist groups experience abuse yet again upon release when they are detained by security forces.
4- Millions more children are paying an indirect price for these conflicts, suffering from malnutrition, disease and trauma as basic services – including access to food, water, sanitation and health – are denied, damaged or destroyed in the fighting.
5- Reintegrating these children back into their communities is probably the most difficult and traumatic aspect.