Creating New Lives for Child Soldiers

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Marco Werman: Pernille Ironside is the UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in emergencies. Pernille, you've worked with kids who have become soldiers in many parts of the world, including Congo. So, here's a story of a very young woman who voluntarily joined a local militia to pay her school fees. Is this a typical case?

Pernille Ironside: Unfortunately, it is a reality for many children in war affected countries where they're struggling for survival. So many of these children do not have enough to eat at home. They don't have opportunities to go to school. And they may have, whether ideological reasons, to join or have experienced themselves, attacks on their families or on their communities that drive them through vengeance to join groups such as the Mai Mai in an effort to gain some power and control over their lives.

Werman: Is forcible recruitment and kidnapping just as common?

Ironside: Unfortunately, it is in many contexts. Many thousands of children are forcibly recruited each year. Abducted, kidnapped from their homes and forced to join up with brutal armed groups that engage in all sorts of activities.

Werman: Can these kids ever really return to normal after they've been through these militias?

Ironside: Absolutely. I myself have interviewed many children who, you know, when they come out of these terrible situations have exhibit real symptoms of distress. And, with time, and the support services that they receive, they can make a full re-integration into their communities and their homes. We have a number of success stories where, in fact, they've gone on to develop successful businesses and, in fact, contribute back to their communities and even themselves become mentors to other children who were following in their footsteps and having come out recently from armed groups. We have a case in point in Bukavu in eastern DRC, where one boy has developed this successful mechanics business and is now mentoring and taking on, as apprentices, a number of other former child soldiers.

Werman: Do you think the support services know how to work with these former child soldiers better today than, say, during the war in Sierra Leone?

Ironside: The challenges that we're operating these programs in countries that have very weak systems for providing social services, or social welfare; in all of eastern Congo, there is one Psychiatrist. Psychologists are very far and few between. So, what we try to do is UNICEF, is to build capacities of the government for services such as counseling and social welfare systems, and strengthen those of local NGOs as well, who can provide this.

Werman: Pernille Ironside is a UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in emergencies. She's worked to help rehabilitate child soldiers in many war ravished countries. Pernille, thank you very much.

Ironside: Thanks Marco.