On January 27, 2015, UNICEF (the United Nations Emergency Fund for Children) announced the release of 280 children from an armed group in South Sudan. February 10, 2015, 300 more children were released. Many of these children had been part of this group for years. On February 21, 2015, an armed group abducted 89 boys while they taking exams abducted in a conflict-affected state in northern South Sudan.
As we observe Red Hand Day today, a day to raise awareness about the use of child soldiers, it is time to think about the 15 million children around the world who are living in the middle of armed conflicts and renew the call for action to protect all of these children.
In December 2013 before conflict erupted in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, the government was working to demobilize children from armed groups and making encouraging progress. However, by May 2014 UNICEF estimated that 9,000 children were associated with armed groups on all sides of the escalating conflict. By October, that number had increased to 12,000. The situation for children caught in the conflict continues to deteriorate as the conflict rages on and children are displaced, separated from their families, and out of school.
In 2008, Congress passed the Child Soldier Prevention Act, which was designed to encourage governments to demobilize children in their armies and support their reintegration into their communities. The law restricts U.S. military assistance, including training, to countries known to be recruiting or using children in their armed forces or supporting armed groups who do. Since 2012 (the first year South Sudan was subject to this law), the United States has granted a national security waiver, allowing military assistance to continue to South Sudan. Therefore allowing U.S. taxpayers to support its use of child soldiers.
This past fall, advocates spoke loudly against U.S. taxpayer funds being sent to support the use of child soldiers. More than 20,000 World Vision advocates sent messages President Obama asking him not to grant a waiver to South Sudan.
The Administration responded; South Sudan received only a partial waiver this year. This is progress. A partial waiver allows some forms of assistance but sends the message that the U.S. does not support the use of children as weapons in war.
As budget talks begin for FY16, we are looking forward─ waiting to see what steps the United States will take to protect all children impacted by this conflict.
Fear and Want, a recent report by World Vision, highlighted the needs of children in South Sudan. Children interviewed said they want peace; they want to be able to return home, to be able to attend school, and to be protected from harm. Funding for education programs and efforts to protect children from exploitation and violence have gone underfunded and under-prioritized by the international community. U.S. government funding should support South Sudan’s children by funding their child protection and education programs.
Though the Government of South Sudan and opposition groups may be committed to ending the recruitment and use of children in their forces, the U.S. Government must prioritize child protection and addressing the root causes of exploitation and violence against children in armed conflict.
As Congress begins to consider the President’s budget and funding for the humanitarian situation in South Sudan, you can share with them that it is important to you that the U.S. work to protect children from exploitation and violence and allow children to receive an education. We will continue to keep you updated with action you can take.
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