MADISON, Wisconsin–One of the worst crimes against humanity in the world today is the use of child soldiers. As we work to eradicate this practice, it’s worth noting that there are a few things to be learned from the damage it’s caused:
1. Good Rules Aren’t Always Followed
In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child passed a law stating that “State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years old do not take a direct part in hostilities.” In 2002, it was changed to include all children under the age of 18.
Despite these efforts, 10 years after this law was passed Algeria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC,) Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Peru, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia were just some of the countries still using child soldiers. In 2007, Child Soldiers International reported that Africa was the largest offender of using children in warfare, but that 25 countries around the world were still guilty of using child soldiers.
In another attempt to discourage the use of children in war, the United States President Barack Obama administration passed The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which bars the U.S. military from providing aid to countries that use child soldiers. Only time will tell whether this will influence recruiters to leave children at home or whether it condemns poor countries to even greater acts of violence.
2. Good People are Capable of Terrible Things
The majority of child soldiers are taken by force when they are less than 16 years old. They are trained in military tactics and forced to kill, rape and beat their own families and peers.
Before being abducted, these children walked nine miles to school each day, sold peanuts to feed their families and dreamed of owning a goat. The means of survival are learned early when you get one meal per day or you need to have six children to ensure that three survive.
Recruiters teach their victims that only those who kill will live, that no questions are tolerated and that resistance in any form warrants violent punishment. Child soldiers are survivors in the cruelest meaning of the word and are guilty only of choosing life over death.
3. Recovery for Child Soldiers is Possible
Vivo, an alliance of medical professionals specializing in psychological trauma, set up an outpatient clinic in northern Uganda in 2011 and has since provided 561 war survivors with traumatic treatment while conducting research with 1,113 former child soldiers. The remarkable rates of success found from this research have been published in the American Medical Association, where it can be studied and used as a future model for treatment.
Rehabilitation centers for former child soldiers are becoming better supported and better staffed as more people become aware of the demand. UNICEF, Aid for Africa, Friends of Orphans, the International Rescue Committee and Heartland Alliance are just a few of the major organizations that have set up rehabilitation centers all over the world and catered to the specific needs of children who have been robbed of their childhoods by war.
4. Life Goes On
Rehabilitation is a long and never-truly-ending road, particularly for those who were born into a war zone. But even with the guilt of having been forced to commit terrible crimes and accepting that the nightmares may never go away, former child soldiers have found ways to move forward with their lives.
Mugoli Shukuru spent two years as a rebel commander’s sex slave in the DRC and now repairs cars, finding freedom for herself and her two daughters in learning to drive. Gode Musore has started his own hairdressing business after fighting from ages 10 to 14 for the rebels who killed his father. Fostin Nshimirimana spent the first half of his young life as a child soldier in Tanzania and is now a teenage hip-hop artist in Australia.
These young people have lived through many challenges, but they have chosen life at the end of it all. Suicide rates are high among former child soldiers, but most choose to move past their fear and shame and learn how to exist in peace.
5. From Terror Comes Determination for Great Change
Possibly the best known defender of child soldiers is driven by his own experiences as a child in South Sudan. Emmanuel Jal uses music to share his story and is an advocate for Make Poverty History campaign, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and the Control Arms campaign. Jal has released an album, a film and an autobiography all entitled “War Child” demonstrating the horror of war and urging his audiences to prevent the continued use of children as soldiers.
Ishmael Beah has published two books, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” and “Radiance of Tomorrow” in response to his experience as a 12-year-old soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war. Beah is also a spokesperson for UNICEF and travels regularly to rehabilitation centers to talk with former child soldiers.
After his immersion in rape, torture and murder, Ricky Anyway founded Friends of Orphans, a rehabilitation center for fellow child soldiers in northern Uganda. To date, he’s enabled 25,000 orphaned children to attend school and support themselves by learning a trade. Anywar’s passion for a safe and peaceful future also extends to educating people about HIV/AIDS and safe methods of contraception.
Children are resilient, but it’s a hard task to make it appear as though anything good can come out of forcing them to observe and commit heinous crimes. The only real lesson to be learned is how to prevent it from continuing, and how to treat those who will have to learn to live with themselves and their nightmares – because life goes on, but without continuing action against those groups who still recruit children, the histories of today’s survivors will be the futures of their children.