The Nigerian army has handed over 183 children between the ages of seven and 18  to UNICEF and the government, claiming that they were being used as “foot soldiers” by militants. According to CNN, army spokesman John Agim said, “Boko Haram militants send them for different kinds of operations, but they are under-aged. So, they need to be rehabilitated before they are released to their families.”

However, UNICEF Nigeria spokesperson Eva Hinds said the group of children was released after they were cleared of any affiliation with Boko Haram.

Hinds said the agency “views the children as children” and therefore they could not be classified as child soldiers or as “being affiliated to violence without any judicial process. From our perspective, children are easily coerced into doing things to stay alive.”

“Their involvement is still an allegation,” she added. Despite these allegations, the children are receiving both rehabilitation and psychological support.

Read: Child soldiers released in South Sudan

Rehabilitation of child soldiers

According to the governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, more than 100 000 people have been killed and 2 million people have been displaced in the seven-year conflict with the Islamist Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. Many of the Boko Haram combatants have been found to be boys and girls under the age of 18.

A United Nations report claims that Boko Haram recruited 2 000 children to fight in 2016. As a counter, and with the help of the army, about 8 700 children reclaimed from armed groups have been rehabilitated since 2017, according to UN figures.

The head of UNICEF Nigeria, Mohamed Fall, said in a statement that their release from the military was “an important step on their long road to recovery. I also want to commend the action taken by the military and the authorities. It demonstrates a clear commitment to better protect children affected by the conflict.”

Children released from military exploitation are typically very vulnerable and many of them return or rejoin an armed group after their communities and families reject them after their return home. It is especially bad for girls, because they face strong stigmatisation based on the perception of their lost ‘social value’ due to their association with an armed group, and their actual or imputed sexual relations with a man outside of marriage.

The United Nations website states that rehabilitation and reintegration is critical for the well-being of former child soldiers and to ensure that cycles of violence are not perpetuated. There should be strict adherence to the Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups (2007). Education and youth employment are key elements both in the prevention of recruitment and in the sustainable reintegration of children back into their societies.