The former rebel soldiers have been housed in a United Nations supervised camp for the past three years, since the Maoists and the Government of Nepal signed a peace deal. The move is being hailed as the final critical chapter for the peace process in the poor, landlocked country between China and India.
With a blessing of red ‘tika’ on their foreheads and garlands of marigolds around their necks, more than 237 former child soldiers boarded buses in the highlands of mid-western Nepal for a ride back into civilian life. They and about 30 other late recruits into the Maoist army were officially discharged, ending a one-month process across the Himalayan country seeking to rebuild after years of civil war. The Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal Pushpa Kamal Dahal, led the former child soldier’s release ceremony, giving them a farewell speech. The Representative in Nepal for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Gillian Mellsop, called it a "historic day" for Nepal's peace process. "This particular discharge was really a sense of celebration,” she said. "The release of these young people is not only symbolic for the country, but a milestone for these young men and women, who spent their formative years inside a military structure, losing out on critical skills vital for adulthood," Ms Mellsop said.
The process to free Nepal’s former child solders started in January and altogether, 3,000 former child soldiers have been released from the Maoist fighting forces after the United Nations verified that they were children. Each former child soldier, including the girls, is promised opportunities for formal schooling, vocational training, education to become health workers and help setting up small businesses, arranged by Nepal's government and the United Nations. "What we all need to do now is act swiftly to ensure that these young people get the full benefits from the rehabilitation packages," said Ms. Mellsop, "so that they can reintegrate successfully and help build Nepali society fractured after this long conflict. That is the big challenge going forward."
Negotiations for the children’s release have dragged on since 2007, by which tome they had all been identified and disqualified from military service. About 500 of them are still under 18 today, according to UNICEF figures, and about a dozen are under 16. About one-third of the disqualified soldiers are girls.
By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children