The Footnotes: What was it like?
Jess: Hard question to answer! I’d seen enough imagery and read enough reports about the conditions so that initial culture shock of – you know, ‘seeing a child smoking a cigarette as he cradles an AK-47 automatic rifle in his arms’ is removed; but still – no amount of education can prepare you for the challenges. I don’t want to talk to the ‘shock factor’ stories that you take away from those places, that’s widely accessible on the internet; and I think that it also perpetrates the stereotype of child soldiers. For example, UN estimates up to 40 percent of child soldiers worldwide are in fact girls, who often have suffered horrendous sexual abuse. And for girls, rejection and discrimination by family and friends is commonplace. For example in the Congo, of 150 girls interviewed for a research piece that the UN ran, their experiences were compounded when they returned home, as many were ostracised by their families.
But from a positive angle, I think a highlight is the joy and appreciation that the parents of these children and the wider community share with you. We engaged with rebel fighters and government officials, and I was blown away by the experiences that people were brave enough to share. It really re-confirmed by passion for working in the area. Being exposed to the issue first hand gives you a foundation for technical expertise.
It’s really widely documented that wounds of past violence create emotional vulnerability and enable cycles of violence in children. So programs like the one we were running in Liberia were about humanitarian assistance and development; and it was about running psychosocial activities aimed at healing the wounds of war through normalising activities; expressive arts, reintegration of former child soldiers, and use of local cultural networks and resources. Witnessing those psychosocial activities in action is really powerful.
Through a programme sponsored by UNICEF Liberia through GTZ, over 4,300 Liberian child soldiers have been demobilised and reintegrated into communities.
The Footnotes: What does it feel like working at UNICEF?
Jess: It’s the most rewarding job I could imagine; but it can also leave me feeling so helpless. Change is slow and it’s sometimes difficult to accept the process. In some regions that are midst conflict child soldiers can be seen riding around the streets of the capital Monrovia in pick-up trucks proudly toting their automatic rifles – daily. There is so much to be done. Office life is busy. We’ve got UNICEF staff on the ground in communities running programmes and initiatives, but that takes an army in an office to facilities, fund, protect, organise, research –