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.
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.
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.
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."