Former child soldiers in Yambio, South Sudan. Photo by: Isaac Billy / UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

JUBA, South Sudan — The current system to keep children from returning to the armed forces once they’ve been demobilized isn’t working, said Virginia Gamba, the new chief of the United Nations’ Children and Armed Conflict arm.

“If it was working, my figures wouldn’t be what they are,” Gamba told Devex in an interview in Juba earlier this month. “For 20 years we’ve monitored children and ... every year, globally, we have the same amount of kids recruited and used ... It’s a plateau and someone has to do something to break it.”

She called the figures for child recruitment “unacceptably high” specifically in South Sudan, which has endured five years of civil war. While almost 1,000 children have been demobilized by the United Nations Children's Fund in South Sudan this year, and equipped with a reintegration package — including vocational training, psychosocial support, and food — Gamba says the three-month package isn’t enough to prevent them from returning to the army. At least half of those demobilized, in one way or another, have been rerecruited or voluntarily rejoined.

In an attempt to combat the issue, Gamba is proposing a global reintegration fund, which will focus on a more sustainable approach to keeping children from rejoining the army. Supported by UNICEF, it will be the first initiative to focus on a long-term approach to reintegrating child soldiers into their communities. The aim is to lower the new recruitment numbers by half each year and double the number of children released, said Gamba, who presented the idea at the U.N. General Assembly this week.

In an exclusive interview with Devex, Gamba explains why the current reintegration model isn’t working and what her vision is for the new global fund.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What will it take to break the cycle of children rejoining the armed forces?

For reintegration to break the cycle of violence, two things must happen. Either the government should be responsible for putting money behind social welfare — creating child protection offices of their own and engaging villages and peace-building communities that can support the child outside the context of conflict, containment, and the ability to start again, which is a long shot. Or, the international community must grit its teeth and actually pay for peace.

What does that look like?

If not a permanent, at least a long-term psychosocial support for each kid — as of now they only get about six months of psychosocial and psychological support, a minimum of five years to help the mind is needed. So, at least a five-year program to afford the containment, to pay for the daily needs of that child, to give them years of skills and development, and to give them some type of work. Also, an express education component — that doesn’t exist today — to move the kids quickly through primary and secondary school. I would love if the last two years were for a postgraduate degree to allow for the possibility to pursue a profession.

“For 20 years we’ve monitored children and ... every year, globally, we have the same amount of kids recruited and used ... It’s a plateau and someone has to do something to break it.”

— Virginia Gamba, chief of the U.N.’s Children and Armed Conflict arm

What would the lead up to the creation of a global fund look like?

It’s so complex — the creation of the new global fund — that it can’t be done lightly. We made the decision that for a year UNICEF and ourselves are going to put in place a small team of researchers. It will be a joint project led by our office and include a multiagency team that will try to undertake some desk and field research in order to show why reintegration is not enough — and how many kids that were reintegrated lightly, go back to the use of violence.

We’ll have a series of consultants under the leadership of two researchers from either office. We already have one or two donors interested in supporting the one-year project. We’re going to do it transparently. We’ll launch the roadmap project this year, which I hope will generate answers to all the questions that potential donors will have. It’s not going to be a fast project it’s going to be slow but it has got a shot at convincing the international community to put money behind the global fund.

You mentioned that there’s been some resistance to the idea of this fund. Why is that?

There are few countries that are donor countries, and I think it’s harder and harder to convince developed countries to produce even more money and to fend for new ideas. That’s the resistance that lies at the bottom of it. On top of that, it’s also a question of comfort for people who have been doing this job for years. They don’t want to have to change and they don’t want to have to transform. There’s always the idea that if it’s not broken why fix it. My idea is that it might not be broken, but it’s not leading the transformation from the cycle of violence to the cycle of peace, and we need one more push.

NCDs. Climate change. Financing. Read more of Devex's coverage from the 73rd U.N. General Assembly here.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.