“How can you get tired of your children?”

A social workers' dedication to help former child soldiers

Helene Sandbu Ryeng
A lady sitting on a chair under a mango tree
02 March 2020

You can immediately feel her presence. A warm and loving aura embraces you before her arms does, accompanied by a smile. Josephine has 48 children but has given birth to only three. The rest are technically her clients, but when they talk about her, they refer to her as their mother, and when she talks about them, she refers to them as her children.

Josephine is a social worker in Yambio, working with vulnerable children including survivors from gender-based violence and children associated with armed forces and armed groups.

A boy looking at brickwork
Christian is watching his fellow students do brickwork

“She was one out of two people in the entire world that believed in me when I got released from the armed group,” ‘Christian’, one of her children, says.

He was abducted by an armed group in his early teens and quite traumatized by the experience. When he was released, he was aggressive and would pick a fight with anyone. Josephine was assigned as his social worker through the UNICEF supported reintegration programme and started counselling him and provided extensive psychosocial support.

“I call her [Josephine] my mother, she has talked to me, counselled me and been like a mother to me.”

‘Christian’s mother is dead, and his father rejected him when he returned from the Bush. Only his uncle was there for him in addition to Josephine.

‘I’m so grateful to her. I have changed so much since I came out and started working with her. Now I have peace and I’m only looking forward,” Christian says.

A girl sitting on a chair
'Prissy' was struggling with nightmares when she got out of the bush, but after extensive psychosocial support she can sleep epaceful through the night.

Another one of Josephine’s children, ‘Prissy’ was struggling with nightmares when she got out of the bush. She also had a handicapped child which was a result of rape while with the armed forces. “’My mother’ has been there for me all the way. Counselling me, comforting me when I’ve been upset about the baby. She has guided me when I didn’t know what to do. She is not my mother you know, but I call her my mother because that is the relationship we have.”

Having a dedicated social worker for each child released from armed forces and armed groups is one of the success factors of the UNICEF reintegration programme. The journey back to a civilian life is often a bumpy ride. Anger, difficulties adjusting to the new life, feeling like you don’t fit in, stigma are just some of the difficulties these children are facing. The social workers are there, holding their hands through it all. They are shoulders to cry on and the first in line to congratulate when achievements are celebrated

A boy and his graduation certificate
'Christian' and his certificate

“Today I’m so proud of ‘Christian’ who has just graduated from his vocational training. I wouldn’t miss this graduation for the world.”

Josephine says her motivation is to see the young people of the young nation is thriving.

“I’m a former teacher you know, and both professions are really about making sure the children are growing into productive members of the community. We can’t afford to lose any of them, we need them all, and as adults we need to help them.”

“You never get tired of this work, dealing with so many difficult stories?”

“How can you get tired of you children”, Josephine asks chuckling.


The UNICEF reintegration programme is generously supported by the Spanish and the Danish national committee for UNICEF