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Youth and Armed Conflict

Today, there are over twenty war-affected countries in which grave violations are taking place against children and youth. As primary victims of armed conflict, young people experience many forms of suffering. They are killed, maimed, orphaned, abducted, deprived of education and health care, and left with deep emotional and physical scars. The risk of sexual violence increases dramatically with the presence of fighting forces and the breakdown of law and order. Such violations include rape; sexual slavery; forced prostitution, pregnancy, sterilization, marriage and sexual mutilation. While girls and women are disproportionately targeted, boys and men are also sexually violated in conflict situations.

Children and youth are uniquely vulnerable to involuntary military recruitment. Hundreds of thousands are associated with armed forces, including those of non-State actors. Young people’s participation in conflict has serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being.  Further, the changing nature of conflict directly impacts children as war tactics include the use of children as suicide bombers and systematic, deliberate attacks on schools are waged. Counter-terrorism strategies can result in collateral damage, including civilian casualties.

Children and youth suffer from other consequences of conflict such as poverty, unemployment, low educational attainment, poor governance and the disintegration of families and communities. Rehabilitation and reintegration is particularly critical for children and youth formerly associated with armed groups in order to break cycles of violence and to find a new existence after a life of conflict and distress. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes should build on the strengths of the individuals, especially their resilience, and children and youth should be consulted in the process.  The specific issues and needs of girls should be explicitly addressed.

The following feature story traces the life of James Gatgong and his experiences in armed conflict.  The story has been extracted from the “Child Protection in United Nations Peacekeeping”, Volume I, Spring 2011, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Children in Armed Conflict: Zero Under 18 Campaign and Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
 
James Gatgong makes incursions into the field to investigate reported incidents of grave violations against children. He trains commanders, Southern Sudanese police officers, Government officials and community leaders. “I love to work for children, especially when it involves promoting their rights.” James has a special connection with child soldiers in the Sudan. He used to be one.

At 13, James was forced by his brother, who was then a village chief in Boor Mayendit County Unity State, to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). “There was heavy pressure on local communities to join the SPLA in fighting the enemy,” he said. Mr. Gatgong recalls joining the SPLA with War Child author and internationally acclaimed rapper Emmanuel Jal who comes from the same village. In 1987, Mr. Gatgong and thousands of other children trekked on foot down the long and treacherous route to Ethiopia. Many died of hunger and disease along the way. Upon arrival they became part of the Red Army which consisted mostly of children. He recalls being ordered to fight the war in the Equatoria region of Southern Sudan. “In 1993, I saw many children killed during the war. This is one of my most painful memories. I was seriously wounded and evacuated to Kenya by the Red Cross,” he said. Once in Kenya, he resumed school, where he studied social work.

The SPLA began transforming into a conventional army in 2006 and integrated a number of different armed groups within its ranks. Despite the many improvements, there are still high illiteracy rates among the soldiers and limited knowledge and understanding of the rights of children. In his current role as child protection officer with the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS), James Gatgong is, among many other assignments, responsible for training the United Nations Peacekeeping forces and soldiers in Southern Sudan on international and national child protection law.

The children in the Sudan also need to be made aware of their right which is why Gatong speaks to students. “Recently, I met one former child soldier, while visiting a school to talk about child rights. The student stood up in front of his classmates and teachers and said, ‘this man helped me by removing me from the army when I was very young.’ The boy told the class that he intends to work for children of Southern Sudan. I am proud of the help that I can give my own people. He will be too,” said Mr. Gatgong.

 

Original Posting Source: UN Youth Flash: Vol. 8, No.5, May 2011

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