In Sudan we were distributed to men and I was given to a man who had just killed his woman. I was not given a gun but I helped in the abductions and grabbing of food from the villages. Girls who refused to become prostitutes were killed in front of us. ~ Child Soldier, age 15
Hundreds of thousands of children, in more than 40 countries across the globe, are being forced or tricked into becoming soldiers. The United Nations has declared that sending children into battle is an ‘international war crime’. Yet this tragic practice of robbing children of their humanity is far from abating – it is increasing. In September 1990, the Convention on the Rights of the Child became law. More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history — 192 countries had become State Parties to the Convention as of November 2005. It is the most universally ratified human rights document and the standard against which we measure the success or failure of our efforts to serve the interests of children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. Only two countries have not ratified this celebrated agreement: Somalia and the United States! The United States did ratify a later agreement, known as an optional protocol to the convention, aimed at preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Many armed conflicts today put children at risk to an unprecedented degree. During the last two decades the world has seen growing instances of armed conflicts targeting children for recruitment as combatants and support personnel. They are increasingly vulnerable to the worst possible violence and abuse. The civil disruption that accompanies these conflicts destroys whatever meager support structures might have existed: schools, food assistance, health clinics. Civilian populations may be callously abandoned. Disruption of children’s education during armed conflict carries a high cost over a lifetime for the entire society. Children have a right to an education and it is the obligation of government and society to provide it. But this is far from reality in most of those areas where these conflicts occur.
Thousands upon thousands of children are killed every year as a direct result of conflict by blunt trauma, bullets, bombs, landmines, machetes and grenades. Many more die from poor nutrition and diseases caused by increasing conflicts. Resources that could be invested in development are diverted into armaments. One of he most distressing realities of our times is that most wars have been fought in precisely these countries that are so impoverished, so woebegone that it is heartbreaking to see the further plunder and waste that afflicts these economies.
Armed conflict for any nation is a public health hazard and the use of child soldiers has become a feature of armed conflict in every region of the world. The figure of 350,000 children under arms is considered a conservative figure. Many of these children were abandoned by an impoverished family. Imagine being deprived of an early family life, being a victim of poverty and the rule of the gun, born into loneliness, kidnapped or abducted by army recruiters, sometimes forced to chop off arms of a family member, forced to suffer the guilt of having committed an atrocity.
You can not go home again, you have been been introduced to the normalization of terror. This is the life a young child soldier must contend with. We expect them to live with these de-humanizing experiences once they are demobilized. The wide availability of light weight automatic weapons ensures that children as young as seven years old can serve as front line troops. Many are involved as messengers, guards, camp servants, cooks, and spies for government brigades. About one third of child soldiers are girls and many are combatants even if their role also requires them to provide sexual services, whether or not they are dignified as “wives”. Girls are often raped repeatedly.
Recruitment includes any means by which a person becomes a member of the armed forces including obligatory military service. The countries with the highest number of child soldiers in the world in governmental armed forces are Afghanistan, Cambodia Burma, and Sri Lanka. Many children under 15 are attracted to the prestige of the military but many – especially orphans and street children – have been forced to join. Some become porters to survey the roads for landmines with brooms and branches. Many children are killed in these situations and many are murdered if they attempt to escape, cannot keep up or become ill.
A report recently released, disclosed that there are sill some 120,000 child soldiers under age 18, and some no older than seven years old, being used throughout the African continent. The small arms and light weapons kill about a thousand people everyday and over 500,0o0 every year: 300,000 in warring areas, 200,000 in areas supposedly at peace. About 560,000 small arms circulate today, not including private collections. The legal trade in africa is between 4 and 6 billion dollars. In latin america the trade is between 140 and 170 billion dollars!
Proposals at the united nations were weakened when the final document during negotiations were being transacted because the United States was opposed to certain restrictions concerning civilian possession of light weight weapons. It has been estimated that there were half a million deaths in Mozambique alone between 1981-1985 of children who were too young to resist recruitment.
In these depressed regions of the globe, 46% of the population are illiterate and 50% of the population are malnourished. 600 million children less than 3 years old live without clean water, 250 million are thrown into child labor, 22 million are displaced by war, 13 million are orphaned and millions are victims of violence and sexual abuse. These staggering numbers leave us numb.
Child soldiering is very prevalent in Africa where HIV has wiped out an entire generation of people in some areas, leaving a wide gap between young and old. It is estimated that over the last 15 years 10,000 children have been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) around Gulu in northern Uganda, alone. Children are deliberately targeted as they are manipulated more easily than adults and can be indoctrinated to perform crimes and atrocities without asking questions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, child soldiers are forced to commit the most atrocious acts of murder, acts which mentally scar them for life. Amnesty International reports that, as a 15-year-old soldier, ‘Kalami’ was made to ‘kill a family, to cut up their bodies and eat them’. He goes on to say ‘my life is lost. I have nothing to live for’. Female child soldiers are frequently used as sexual slaves by the commanders.
There are an estimated 350,000 child soldiers worldwide but that number grows every year. They are mostly boys, taken from their homes unwillingly, given a gun and told they are a man. They are given uniforms, alcohol and cigarettes, all signs of maturity, and told they need to fight for a cause, a leader or a clan. They tend to serve in illegal militias, but just as easily can be found in a dictator’s employ. Whether they are compensated or serve willingly is irrelevant… ten-year-olds have no business fighting and dying in trenches. Girls also fall victim to these militias, being inducted to cook, clean, carry, used for sex and put to arms as well.
Falling Whistles is an organization dedicated to rehabilitation and advocacy for child victims of the world’s largest and most deadly war in the Republic of Congo.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers puts out a comprehensive global report that is updated periodically. It gives a good overview of the practice as well as detailed analysis by country. The report is available on the Files section of our Meetup website.
Invisible Children has long been a leader in the fight to eliminate child soldiering.
SOS Children works extensively with this issue and maintains a very informative website.
Kony 2012: Viral Video, Vicious Warlord, Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times, March 14, 2012
Children Carry Guns for a U.S. Ally, Somalia, JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, New York Times, June 13, 2010