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How the Use of Child Soldiers Is Waging a War on Innocence

On February 12, the world once again stopped to commemorate Red Hand Day, or the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers.

Since 2002, the day has been used as a clarion call to stop the horrific practice of using children in warfare. Fundraisers are held and appeals are made to political officials to apply further pressure on countries that allow this to happen.

The Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated With Armed Forces define a child soldier as “any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity.” Despite global efforts to combat this phenomenon, UNICEF estimates that around 10,000 children, some as young as 6, are currently involved in various armed conflicts across the globe. 

While the recruitment of children to this effect is considered a violation of international law, the sad reality is that the presence of children in conflict groups is rife. Just last year the UN recognised 14 countries where this still occurs, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. What's more, between 2005 and 2020 more than 93,000 young people were confirmed to have been recruited into warfare.

When one thinks of a child soldier, their mind often lands on the image of a small African boy clutching a gun bigger and heavier than his own body. In reality, however, child soldiers suffer nuanced and extensive forms of abuse not fully conveyed by the term.

Young people are used not just as fighters, but also as cooks, cleaners, spies, bodyguards, and porters. These supporting roles do not always necessitate direct combat, but are just as psychologically damaging.

Many others, predominantly girls, are sexually exploited. Forced to become wives or sex slaves to the warlords, female child soldiers are imperilled by gender-based violence every day.

It is common knowledge among conflict groups that recruiting these children offers them a crucial tactical advantage. A young boy running around a small village will not always be suspected as a rebel spy or intelligence gatherer, nor as a suicide bomber.

Not only do they provide a disguised threat, but also leverage an advantage for the group by playing on the moral underpinnings of the enemy.

For all of the children living among armed actors, experiencing harrowing acts of violence each day is simply the norm. Alongside active combat and its supporting roles, they may witness or be forced to conduct torture and planned killings. Warlords frequently deny the children adequate nutrition and living conditions, and many are also made to take part in traumatic training carrying the risk of death, severe injury, and disability.

It is reported that military initiations are particularly vicious, with the children “being forced to loot villages (sometimes their own), and rape, torture, and kill under the threat of death.”

George, a 15-year-old former child soldier, told The Guardian in an interview - “If we tried to go anywhere without permission they would find us and kill us, or take our family’s cattle. If we disobeyed anything, even just an order to bring water, we were beaten, made to stand in the sun for hours, or put in prison.”

Half of the 14 countries that currently utilise child soldiers are in Africa. The continent is home to 40% of the global child soldier population, approximated to be 250,000 strong.

South Sudan possesses the largest number of child combatants in the world, with 18,000 having been recruited in the last 4 years. However, the Lord Resistance Army’s violent insurgency against the Ugandan regime is perhaps the most commonly known operation, with 66,000 children having belonged to their ranks from 1986 to 2009.

Husband and wife Anthony and Florence Opoka fought as part of this number, and their experience left them with lasting physical and mental traumas.

Anthony told The Guardian how he was severely injured six times during his decade-long tenure fighting with the LRA. This included being struck by a grenade, and having his body tossed into a mass grave before someone saw his eyes moving and rescued him.

Florence gave birth to her second child amidst active crossfire. After tying the new-born baby to her back, she made her way out of the conflict zone and eventually escaped.

Other countries choose to use child soldiers purely for their fiscal benefit, says Michael Mulroy, Middle East policy chief at the Pentagon. “A lot of countries sign up to not use child soldiers and then they do it anyway—that’s a fact.”

One of these such places is Saudi Arabia, who hired Sudanese children to fight Yemen’s civil war, US government officials have found.

The Islamic State were also prolific recruiters of child combatants, abducting and indoctrinating their so-called ‘cubs of the caliphate’. 

These children, some as young as 6, were consigned to military and religious training camps where they learnt not just how to fight, but how to think. They were taught how to act as human shields and practiced beheading with dolls.

The inculcation of Islamic State cubs with extremist beliefs demonstrates the insidious complexities of child soldiering. The spectrum of potential psychological fallout is vast, and rehabilitation thus differs massively according to their varying levels of indoctrination. 

“I gave everything I had to Islamic State’s victory because I thought I was being oppressed by everyone. They said you should give everything to them, even sacrifice yourself. There are many children who now have absolute loyalty”, a former ‘child of ISIS’ told PBS.

This alluring tribe mentality and sense of belonging is only one of the various reasons why children fall into soldiering.

“One of the biggest myths is that they are forced to join an armed force, or that they are all abducted”, argues UNICEF child protection officer José Luis Hernández. While many children are forcibly recruited, various socioeconomic factors are also responsible for pushing young people into joining armed groups.

Research has found these factors to include lack of access to education, abject poverty, and a need for protection felt by either the child or their family.

Lack of education and employment opportunities leave young people feeling hopeless for their future, thus they turn to conflict groups for a sense of purpose.

Unfavourable economic circumstances also offer children a reason to join. The appealing promise of food and a place to sleep, or another stream of income for the family, provides a welcome change from the destitution that they face daily.

Protracted displacement during times of conflict, when families are forced to migrate and communities are attacked, can often result in the separation of children from their parents. Many subsequently choose to become child soldiers as a means of gaining protection and security.

Tackling these push factors is the central aim of efforts to diminish the presence of children in combat. The work of humanitarian organisations such as UNICEF is crucial to strengthening the first line of protection for children in conflict zones.

Many young people fear they will not be accepted back into their communities once they leave. Numerous children who return struggle to verbalise their experiences, especially when they fear being stigmatised by those around them - the provision of counselling and support for families ensures less friction to this reintegration.

Only by implementing safeguarding systems and working with communities to increase opportunities, will less young people feel the need to turn to these groups as their only solution.

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