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Children Soldiers

It may seem unimaginable to most of us that child soldiers exist and yet the reality for many rebel and gang leaders, and even state governments, is that there is no more complete end-to-end weapon system in the inventory of war machines than the child soldier has created the ultimate cheap, expendable, yet sophisticated human weapon at the expense of humanity's own future: its children.

Thousands of children are recruited by rebel gangs and used to fight in armed conflicts around the globe. These boys and girls suffer extensive forms of exploitation and abuse that are not fully captured by that term. Warring parties use children not only as fighters, but as scouts, cooks, porters, guards, messengers and more. Many, especially girls, are also subjected to gender-based violence. The term child soldiers also include children recruited and trained for military purposes, but not used in war and worse of all suicide bombers.

Tens of thousands of children are estimated to be recruited and used by armed groups. According to the United Nations, in 2019 alone more than 7,740 children, some as young as six, were recruited and used as soldiers around the world, most were recruited by non-state groups.

Why do children become child soldiers?

Children become soldiers in different ways. Some are forcibly recruited. They may be abducted, threatened or coerced into joining, while others are enticed with money, drugs or in other ways.

In many cases, children choose to join as a result of economic or social pressures. Others join armed forces to fight for a cause that they or their family support, often with little clear understanding of the implications of their decision.

Being poor, displaced, separated from their families or living in a combat zone can make children particularly vulnerable to being recruited. It also makes it easier to manipulate them because they don’t need much food and they don’t have a highly developed sense of danger.

What happens to the ones recruited?

Some children are trained for and participate in armed combat, while others are given a supporting role. In almost all cases these child soldiers never have access to formal education.

A number of former child combatants from the Central African Republic have reported that they were forced to perform horrific acts, such as killing their own parents as a form of initiation into the armed group. It is thought that this initiation hardens them to brutality and breaks the bonds with their community, making it difficult for them to return.

Where are these child soldiers recruited?

Fifty countries still allow children to be recruited into armed forces, according to Child Soldiers International. Many non-state armed groups also recruit children.

The UN Secretary-General's annual "name and shame" list for 2017 highlighted the armed forces of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for recruiting and using under-18s for armed conflict. But non-state armed groups also recruit children in these and other countries.

The report said there were at least 4000 verified violations by government forces and over 11,500 by non-state armed groups in the 20 country situations it examined.

What can be done?

Many child soldiers end up desensitised to violence, which can psychologically damage them. Many are traumatised by what they have been forced to do or have witnessed. Children need to undergo reintegration programmes to help them return to civilian life.

Most child soldiers have missed out on school and need additional education in order to feed themselves and make a more stable life for themselves.

These children when released need to be provided with medical care, counselling, education, vocational training and a safe place to live while they can recover from the trauma they've experienced.

According to Save The Children, if former child soldiers are not successfully reintegrated into society, there is a high risk of them being recruited again. Reintegration support programs are often underfunded.

A total of 170 countries have ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC), which banned the participation of children under 18 in hostilities, but the practice continues in more than a dozen nations.

Compelled to become instruments of war, to kill and be killed, child soldiers are forced to give violent expression to the hatreds of adults.


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