Stolen Childhoods

Children in armed groups in South Sudan



"Thomas" is 12 years old and a 'child soldier', or as defined in the Paris principles: “A child associated with an armed force or armed group” refers to any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity.

The principles further highlight, that the definition is not only referring to children taking part in hostilities, but also children "... used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes."

A boy standing in front of a gun

Normal children with exceptional baggage

Children associated with armed forces and armed groups have the same need to be loved, cared for, and to feel safe as other children. They have dreams about the future, they make jokes, they play football with the same intensity to win as children who have not been in an armed group. But they do have extraordinary experiences which will be with them for the rest of their lives, meet Mark, Rose and Gabriel who were released and received help through UNICEF’s reintegration programme.

Five facts about child soldiers in South Sudan

A boy in uniform
  1. More boys than girls are used by armed forces and armed groups. Out of the formally released children, 12 % are girls.
  2. 28 % of the children released in Western Equatoria region are under 15 years of age.
  3. Not all children in armed groups carry weapons, some are also used as cleaners, porters, cooks and watchmen.
  4. Girls used by armed groups are disproportionally subjected to sexual and gender- based violence.
  5. No one knows the exact number of child soldier in South Sudan, due to this crime is not reported by the perpetrators and poor birth registration making age verification difficult.

“Using children in armed groups violates almost every child right that exists. These children are deprived of a childhood and have seen things children should never experience. However, it is not too late to give them a future”

Mohamed Ag Ayoya
UNICEF South Sudan Representative 

UNICEF Representative Mohamed Ag Ayoya

The long way home

A girl is writing on a blackboard in a classroom


After a child is released from an armed group, a three-year long reintegration programme starts.

The child is provided with a social worker which will be a steady hand to hold on to through the reintegration process. The child will receive psychosocial support, health care, basic items you need when you start over and supported with education and reintegration back to the community- transitioning to a civilian life.

The road is filled with challenging moments for the children and their families. Stigma, fear, shifting loyalties, earning a living and come to peace with the past. 

A full reintegration programme costs USD 2,000 per child because it is such a resource intensive programme, but there are no shortcuts in reintegration if we want children to stay outside the armed groups.

Kidnapped, used and left to die, now reunited with mum

Lost childhoods and impunity

Verifying, registering, releasing and reintegrating children associated with armed groups is important for the individual child, removing them from exploitation and abuse and helping them to set a different course in life.

UNICEF’s programme is also important addressing the grave child right violation on a normative level and addressing issues on a system level. 

The programme is important to prevent child soldiers and violence against children being normalized. It is also essential for upholding the respect for international law, ensure  accountability and continue to address impunity.

A child soldier and his gun

The Government of South Sudan has committed to not using children in conflict through signing and ratifying the following legal frameworks:

  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • The first optional protocol to the CRC
  • African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
  • South Sudan Child Act
  • The transitional Constitution of the republic of South Sudan
  • Paris principles
  • Cape Town Principles
Children walking home after reintegration ceremony
Children walking home with reintegration kits after the release ceremony. The kits include basic items one need when starting over, such as clothes, soap, toothbrush, sleeping mat and food.

I whispered so only I could hear: Good luck, you can do it!”

Child Protection Specialist Federica Pantaleoni about the release of 32 boys from armed groups in Mirmir.


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Ten facts about UNICEF's work with children associated with armed forces and armed groups


  1. UNICEF has supported the release of 3677 children in South Sudan since 2015
  2. More than 3,300 verified cases of grave child rights violations have been reported to the national monitoring body since December 2013
  3. UNICEF is planning to release some 2100 children in 2020, pending funding
  4. UNICEF’s largest reintegration programme is in Yambio, in the south-west of South Sudan
  5. UNICEF’s reintegration programme costs USD 2,000 per child for three years


6) Most children completing the reintegration programme are not re-enrolled in armed groups

7) Several embassies in South Sudan has formed a ‘group of friends’ advocating for the parties to stop recruiting and using children and supporting the UNICEF reintegration programme

8) UNICEF protect the children’s identity to prevent retaliation, stigma and re-recruitment 

9) UNICEF need 4.2 million dollars for 2020 to continue the release and reintegration of children associated with armed groups

10) The programme might be closed by end of March 2020 unless funding becomes available