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Difference Maker

Pernille Ironside goes to war zones to free child soldiers

Around the world children are forced to serve in military groups or as laborers or worse. UNICEF's Ironside has set some of them free.

By Josh Allen/ Correspondent / June 13, 2011



New York

It is one of modern war's most dismaying realities: Armed groups around the world enmesh thousands of children in violent conflicts, where they suffer as support staff, soldiers, or even as sex slaves.

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UNICEF staffer Pernille Iron­side travels far and wide to protect these children – at times risking her own life to do so.

From 2005 to 2008, she worked in the conflict-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In January 2007, she led a team to a remote area outside the town of Goma. There an armed group was merging with a government force – a chance for UNICEF to assess the rebels' contingent of recruited children.

"Once the rebels saw us, they were extremely agitated," Ms. Ironside recalls. "At certain points, they were thrusting weapons in our faces, saying, 'You don't belong here, leave now.' "

To free one child from conscription would be a victory. The next month, she negotiated the release of 150 children.

Such moments must be placed in a daunting global context. Recruitment of children under 18 into armed groups is so extensive that no precise count exists. Irregular forces see the young as easily coercible labor, sometimes simply abducting conscripts from their homes at gunpoint.

That is just one aspect of this complex issue.

"We need to understand that [to join] is a choice of survival," Ironside says. "These children literally don't have enough to eat or opportunities to go to school. Perhaps they join out of revenge – because their village has been attacked.

"There are so many driving factors, and there's not a single solution to responding to those different motivations," she says.

Based in New York, Ironside holds the official title of UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in Emergencies. The Canadian native has three academic degrees, including a master of laws from Columbia University.

"We try to rehabilitate children, to get them back in their families and give them some hope for the future in terms of new life skills, schooling, and vocational training," she says.

"We also have, both in conflict and in natural disasters, an emphasis on supporting the psychological well-being of children who have been exposed to traumatic events or violence – whether they've witnessed it, or perhaps committed it themselves, or were forced to commit it."

"Pernille is one of the bravest, feistiest, and most devoted women I've met working in conflict zones," says Eve Ensler, an award-winning playwright and an advocate for women's rights around the world.

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