SEATLLE, Washington — Child soldiers have been exploited throughout history and are currently involved in the conflict in Syria. There are many misinterpretations around how and why child become involved in conflict and how to help children recover from trauma. Here are ten facts that everyone should know about child soldiers.
1. Who Are Child Soldiers?
Child soldiers are any individuals under the age of 18 who are recruited by government or opposition armed forces to participate in conflict. They may fight in the front lines, or participate in wars by acting as lookouts, spies, cooks, or messengers.
Children are also sometimes recruited for suicide missions.
Girls are often used as “wives” (sexual slaves) for male soldiers; it is estimated that 30% of child soldiers are females. While there is no way to count the exact number of child soldiers it is estimated that there are currently 250, 000 -300,000 child soldiers worldwide.
2. The Law
International law states that the recruitment and use of child soldiers under the age of 15 is a war crime. Generally, the use of soldiers under the age of 18 is prohibited. Two-thirds of countries believe that forced enrollment under the age of 18 should be banned and that voluntary enlistment should not be allowed under the age of 16.
3. Where are Child Soldiers?
Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of child soldiers. Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan all currently use child soldiers in armed conflict. However since 2011 Thailand, Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar have all also used child soldiers.
Many children are abducted from their homes or schools and forced into combat. The Lords Resistance Army is known for abducting children from their homes to use as soldiers. Sometimes a village may be forced to provide a certain number of child soldiers in order to ensure their safety. Some parents living in extreme poverty may volunteer their children or in some cases children may volunteer themselves often because they believe they have no other options.
5. Why Children?
The use of child soldiers is attractive to armed groups for several reasons. Children mentally and emotionally immature, this makes them more vulnerable and easier to influence. Children have less knowledge of war and a less developed sense of danger so they are willing to be sent out on a variety of dangerous missions. Children also require little food and are expendable and replaceable due to the large number of children in developing countries.
6. The Effect
Children are at serious risk of injury and death as children are often sent out as decoys or as the first line of defense. Some child soldiers become desensitized to violence, this can cause continued participation violence throughout their lifetime or a susceptibility to being victimized. Even when children do escape or are set free they may never recover from the physical or psychological trauma.
7. The Aftermath
Often children cannot go back to their families and communities because they were forced to kill family members or neighbors. The armies often do this intentionally so that children will not be able to run away and return home. Girls often become pregnant and mother the children of rebels who will not be accepted by their families.
Technological advances have led to the invention and distribution of lightweight, easy to use weapons that can be operated by children as young as eight.
9. Help for Child Soldiers
In some countries there are programs available to help child soldiers rehabilitate. These programs provide therapy, medical care, and education so that the children can begin a new life. However when children do not have access to these services they are at risk of re-enlisting because they feel they have nowhere else to go and no one to turn to.
10. An End to Child Soldiers
In June 2013, the United Nations set a goal of abolishing child soldiers globally by 2016. Six of the eight government armies that use child soldiers have already committed to becoming child free, these include South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Chad.
The recruitment and use of child soldiers is a violation of children’s rights and an on the agenda of UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.
– Elizabeth Brown
Sources: Amnesty USA, War Child, Human Rights Watch, UNICEF
Photo: Buzz Kenya