MORE THAN 300 CHILDREN RELEASED BY ARMED GROUPS IN SOUTH SUDAN
More than 300 children, 87 of them girls, were released by armed groups in South Sudan on Wednesday, beginning a process which is expected to see at least 700 children freed in the coming weeks, reports the African News Agency (ANA).
It was the first release of children by any armed group in South Sudan in more than year, according to the Cape Town-based ANA.
The ANA quoted Mahimbo Mdoe, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) Representative in South Sudan, as saying: This is a crucial step in achieving our ultimate goal of having all of the thousands of children still in the ranks of armed groups re-united with their families.
It is the largest release of children in nearly three years and it is vital that negotiations continue so there are many more days like this.
Some 215 children were released by the South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLM), which in 2016 signed a peace agreement with the government and is now integrating its ranks into the national army.
Additionally, 96 children were released from the ranks of the Sudan People's Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO).
Unicef said an upsurge of fighting in the region in July 2016 stalled the progress which had been made in securing the release of children associated with the forces, but this release is a positive step forward.
During the release ceremony, the children were formally disarmed and provided with civilian clothes.
Medical screenings will be carried out, and children will receive counselling and psycho-social support as part of the re-integration programme.
Unicef said those with relatives in the area will be re-united with their families, while others will be placed in interim care centres until their families can be traced.
When children return home, their families will be provided with three months' worth of food assistance to support their initial re-integration, said the agency.
The children will then be provided with vocational training aimed at improving household income and food security. Being able to support themselves economically can be a key factor in children becoming associated with armed groups.
In addition to services related to livelihoods, Unicef said together with its partners it will ensure the released children have access to age-specific education services in schools and accelerated learning centres.
Not all children are forcibly recruited. Many joined armed groups because they feel they had no other option, said Mdoe. Our priority for this group and for children across South Sudan � is to provide the support they need so they are able to see a more promising future.
An estimated 19,000 children continue to serve in the ranks of armed forces and groups more than four years after conflict erupted in December 2013.
Unicef said it will continue to work with all parties to the conflict, as well as the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), to secure the future release and re-integration of all children associated with armed groups through a meticulous process of negotiation, verification and registration.
Unicef requires 45 million US dollars in 2018 to support its release, demobilisation and re-integration efforts across the country. Adequate funding for Unicef's release programme is essential.
Source: NAM News Network