United Nations officials in Angola on Wednesday said the reintegration of former child soldiers into civil society was underway despite the scale of the problem confronting the humanitarian community.
Abubakar Sultan, the child protection officer for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Angola told IRIN that although progress was slow, UN agencies, the welfare ministry and children's rights groups had implemented several programmes aimed at rehabilitating ex-child soldiers since the end of the war last year.
Conservative estimates put the number of ex-child soldiers at some 8,000. However, this figure was based on a UN survey conducted in 1995. Neither the government nor former rebel group UNITA has revealed how many underage soldiers were recruited to fight during the 27-year civil war.
Recruitment of soldiers aged under 15 is forbidden by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the government in 1990.
"The issue of underage soldiers is an extremely complex problem because firstly there are no accurate figures of exactly how many children were involved in the armed conflict. Some of them were possibly children of adult soldiers and are adults now.
"Also, we are not just talking about children in reception areas, whom we can identify, but also internally displaced children and refugees who may have taken part in the conflict. Also, the definition of a child soldier is problematic as it refers to those children who actually particpated in war. It often ignores young girls who were used to carry food, water and guns," Sultan said.
He added that current reintegration efforts were based on the lessons learnt from a failed demobilisation attempt in the mid 1990s.
The demobilisation of some 8,500 registered child soldiers under the 1994 Lusaka Protocol progressed slowly, with more than half that number deserting the quartering areas.
"The demobilisation of child soldiers between 1996 and 1998 failed because there was no basic conditions in place for the children to return to. Negotiations between authorities were drawn out and children languished in quartering areas. So what happened was that they deserted the camps and became very vulnerable and in most cases were kidnapped again," Sultan said.
Although the government's programme for the social reintegration of ex-soldiers does not make specific mention of the special needs of children, the plight of child soldiers has not gone unnoticed.
One step has been that the government has suspended recruitment for its armed forces in 2003. However, NGOs have urged the authorities to exempt all ex-child soldiers from future compulsory military service.
"This would give those child soldiers some time to regain their childhoods and really become children again. But there is an argument that former child soldiers who are 14 or 15 now would have had sufficient time to recover from the trauma of the war and be ready for conscription by the time they reach 20," Francesc Claret, the child protection officer for the United Nations Mission in Angola (UNMA) told IRIN.
UNICEF said under the broader children's rights protection plan, supported by local NGOs and government, children in all of the 42 gathering areas, set up following the April 2002 ceasefire, had received psycho-social counselling.
"Within the camps all children, not just underage soldiers have received counselling. Also, there was a concerted efforts to create child-friendly spaces within the camps which provided the children with an area where they could just play and be children again. All of these initiatives involve local volunteers. Also there is a focus on identifying appropriate school and job training opportunities," Sultan said.
However, concern has been raised that many former child soldiers, most of whom had be born and raised under the conditions of war, no longer saw themselves as "child" soldiers and therefore felt entitled to the full benefits of the demobilisation package offered by the governmnent.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions