Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative will work on the ground with South Sudanese

Dalhousie University initiative receives $3.1 million towards eliminating use of child soldiers

Shelly Whitman and Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire in their office at Dalhousie University on Monday.   Karli Zschogner

A Halifax-based organization has received federal support towards a three-year program to try to stop the use of child soldiers in South Sudan.

The federal government announced Monday it is contributing $3.1 million to the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. The organization will use the money to work with people in the African country’s national security sector, who are one of the first points of contact for children in armed conflict.

Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire and other members of the initiative have been travelling around the world doing training and pressuring leaders to stop the use of youth to fight conflicts created by adults.

“You probably don’t even know how many people sitting around you, in your classrooms, in your churches, in your communities who directly have been … used as child soldiers themselves, or witnessed their families having atrocities committed against them by children in these conflicts,” said Shelly Whitman, executive director of the initiative at Dalhousie University.

According to a 2016 report by the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict, South Sudan is one of the 11 countries on the Security Council agenda reported to currently recruit, kill or maim or rape children, and attack schools and hospitals.

“This is very exciting for us because it’s a country we have been wanting to engage in since we originally went there in November 2015,” Whitman said.

The definition of a child soldier goes far beyond the common perception of a boy with an AK-47 weapon. Boy or girl, the initiative sees a child soldier as any minor coerced, forced or hired by an armed group. This includes messengers, cooks, spies or sex slaves.

Shelly Whitman at the 5th annual Youth Conference on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Mass Atrocities at Carleton University in April 2017.   Karli Zschogner

Whitman said it’s important to work one-on-one with the national security sector. Like the Chibok girls abduction in Nigeria, she said she does not want there to be another missed opportunity to prevent further attacks, abduction and recruitment.

“They are the ones who recruit and use children. They are the ones who when they come across children, also have the opportunity to help get children out of these armed groups,” she said.

She provided an example of a military observer she interviewed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He told her children were better off fighting then selling tomatoes at the market, if they didn’t have access to school.

“If they are not knowledgeable on how to take away the strategic and tactical advantages of those who currently use child soldiers, then all it does is keep reiterating the cycle of recruitment,” she said.

The second portion of the program focuses specifically on the youth. From the support and testimonies of former child soldiers, Whitman said they will work with locals to help children be more conscious of the realities of the use of violence and to be able to make more informed choices. She said, like with their work in Sierra Leone and Somalia with peace clubs and radio programs, they will explain what soldier life is really like, how to escape, and how to avoid recruitment.

“You have to make sure the children have knowledge in how they are being recruited and the realities of what it means to be part of an armed group,” she said.

The Dallaire Initiative continues to pressure the Canadian government to commit to children in conflict zones.This has included the initiative’s influences in Canada signing of the Child Soldier Doctrine, the Safe Schools Declaration and the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers, which has now been endorsed by 59 nations.

In a news statement Monday, federal officials said part of this project will provide training to at least 700 troops and 80 trainers towards child soldiers and the prevention of gender-based violence.


Whitman said Canada has a global and economic responsibility to protect these children, as it uses South Sudan’s oil resources and it has supported refugees in the past. 

“The more we don’t do to sort out conflicts in the areas in which the conflicts occur, the more we’re going to have people who will be continuing to seek refuge here,” said Whitman.