Children robbed of a childhood

New skills can provide a means to a better life

By Tim Irwin
Children playing outside
UNICEF South Sudan/2018/Irwin

15 December 2018

PIBOR, South Sudan – Five days a week Rose* comes to the youth center in Pibor for vulnerable children to learn new skills and to have some respite from the challenges she faces at home.

Today the 14-year-old is busy weaving beaded jewelry, her small hands quickly creating intricate necklaces and bracelets. It’s a long way from her days when, having been forced to join an armed group, she was constantly made to work; cooking, doing laundry fetching water and other menial tasks. Asked how long she lived in the bush with the soldiers and other children, she responds, “too long to remember”.

Her life was tough in the bush, she recalls, but after her release in 2018 she continued to face hardship. Recently her father died, and she must now stay home to help look after younger children while her mother tries to earn enough to feed the family by selling water and firewood in the market. “If she doesn’t sell, we don’t eat,” said Rose.

Rose is one of the more than 700 children being assisted by UNICEF partner, Gredo in the Pibor region. The center also opens its doors to vulnerable children in the community to ensure that assistance is evenly distributed and to foster an attitude of acceptance to those youngsters who were, in many cases, forced to take up arms.

As well as allowing the children to play and socialize, the center provides counselling and psychological support.

Since 2015, nearly two thousand children have been released by armed groups in this eastern region bordering Ethiopia. All of them have missed out on years of education and getting them back into the classroom is a priority, both for the children and for those assisting them.

Veterinaires Sans Frontiers (VSF) is another UNICEF partners focused on and providing vocational training to adolescents who may not view returning to school as a viable option. Many have been sent to a vocational training school in the capital Juba where they are taught welding, carpentry, and tailoring skills. Once back in Pibor they are provided with start-up assistance to help them create their own small businesses.

A classroom of students
UNICEF South Sudan/2018/Irwin
A classroom at the Ngtoloj primary school in Pibor. Many children have to walk five kilometers to reach the school. Former CAAFAG children are also enrolled here.

In Pibor market, two recent graduates were busy making a steel bed frame in a small shop that has become a go-to destination for residents needing welding work. Around the corner Rhoda and Mary were weaving extensions into the hair of a young girl sitting on the floor. Rhoda, 19, would frequently return her attention to her 2-month-old baby contentedly swinging in a baby carrier roped to the ceiling.

“We just started this business in December and so far, it has been up and down,” said Rhoda. “Ahead of special occasions, we always get more customers, but we are able to support ourselves and our families.”

As part of UNICEF’s reintegration support to children formerly with armed groups, families are provided with immediate assistance in the form of food aid and livestock. They are assessed for their health, psychological and education needs and assigned a social worker to guide them back to civilian life. The assistance programme lasts for up to three years.

Dani*, who says he was in the bush for more than two years, was released in 2015 and was provided with two goats and a chicken. His goats have now grown to 15 and provide an income to the family. Families, too, are assisted. Many of them women selling vegetables in the small market were provided with seeds to encourage another means of earning money. Dani, though 18, is in year six of the local primary school. He still has two years to go before he can move to secondary school. He says he wants to be a pilot, which is not surprising given the school is next to a dirt airstrip used by humanitarian agencies.

“We try to teach all of these vulnerable children new values and to show them that through their own efforts they are able to have better lives,” said Richard Gitau of Gredo. 

(Support to the reintegration programme in Pibor has been generously provided by Danida and the German Agency for International Cooperation-GIZ.)