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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.

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In Nepal, Ironside was part of an effort to discharge more than 2,000 young people associated with the army of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

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Begun in January 2010, the effort took five weeks.

"In many cases, the young people wanted to be part of that group and were there for ideological reasons," she says. "It's a different approach to reintegrating young people like that – as opposed to a situation where children are being forced into brutal conditions."

Later in 2010, Ironside was preparing to travel to Pakistan for UNICEF when sudden flooding devastated the country. On arrival in August, she quickly shifted her focus as the agency responded to a massive humanitarian disaster.

"[In such a situation] you work to ensure that children's mental health and well-being are supported when they have ex-perienced the loss of family members or homes," she says.

For children, the consequences of military recruitment are extensive. Commanders may not consider the needs of children when making peace deals. Communities and families may reject the children when they return home.

War can pull in bystanders with a powerful gravity. The 150 children released in 2007 were at risk of rerecruitment when a DRC rebel group later broke from the government force.

At an art center in Goma, girls were able use art to deal with their experiences.

"Art is therapeutic and healing," Ironside says. "I even have a tablecloth embroidered with scenes of rape – think of the hours that went into making that. But in speaking with the girls that made [it], it was part of their healing process...."

UNICEF has teamed with Ms. Ensler's V-Day, a nonprofit group that opposes violence against women and girls, in the eastern DRC.

"Pernille was integral to the founding efforts and energies for the 'City of Joy,' " a center for rape victims based in Bukavu, DRC, Ensler says in an e-mail. Such collaboration is common among child protection groups.

"I think experience is really the key," adds Michael Wessells, author of "Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection." "Pernille is the real deal."

Recently Ironside was selected to be part of a UNICEF team that will respond to emergencies anywhere in the world within 48 hours. And earlier this year she was able to find time to return to the eastern DRC.

"[The] DRC remains in my heart," she says. "My time there ... changed my life, and I still care about what goes on there – and the people."

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