There is a reason the word “childhood” has so many joyous connotations. You think of children and the first picture that draws itself in your head is that of little humans running around, laughing and enjoying the sun – not the image of a child soldier branding a rifle. Your childhood is your introduction to the world; it is the time of your life where you’re supposed to receive so much love and attention, to have peaceful surroundings that enrich your heart and soul and prepare you for the obstacles of adulthood. For many, that is not the case at all. A countless number of children across the world don’t get their share of childhood, don’t get the safety and comfort of a loving home, and are introduced far too early to the hatefulness and malevolence of the human race.
Often, the family and the state are not the ones to blame for the atrocities a young person is forced to watch or live through. But in some particular times of conflicts, the state can prioritize its own interest, and the children unknowingly pay the price for a cause they cannot even understand or justify. Innocence should not be compromised, but people would argue patriotism and the necessity of sacrificing for the homeland. Do they have a point? What does it mean to be a child soldier fighting side to side with men of your father’s age? And what do the laws of the world say regarding such a phenomenon? In this article, we’ll explore the horrific aspects of children’s use in the military.
Across the centuries, states have used underage individuals for military service whenever needed. This use has differed according to the situation, starting with supporting roles like spies, porters, and messengers, and ending with throwing them in the midst of wars with uniforms and guns. Children can be used as a psychological weapon too, either as human shields to manipulate the enemy, or as a propaganda trick to gain the sympathy of the outside world. You might think that such practice is only exercised in poor isolated countries under dictatorships, but that’s hardly true. During the First and Second World Wars, children under the age of 19 were involved in battles in the British army and in the armed conflicts of Eastern Europe. Along the years, humanitarian efforts and laws have tried to prohibit, or regulate, the use of young men and women under the age of 18. But the exploitation of child soldiers has only gotten worse lately.
What Is a Child Soldier?
A child soldier is a child under the age of 18 who has been recruited by the state or any other armed group to join the fight on their side as a soldier, a spy, a cook, or even for sexual purposes. The recruitment can be forced, through threats or external pressure, or it could be voluntary, owing to the children’s false sense of duty towards their country and/or religion. Children could also willingly join the military service to provide for their poor families or protect loved ones.
But it might be confusing for us why a state would recruit child soldiers. They’ll definitely be less experienced and they wouldn’t be strong enough. Actually, won’t they be a burden on the rest of the combat? Won’t they need protection or much more training? The answer is no. Child soldiers in this case are treated exactly like their adult counterparts, if not more nonchalantly. They are left to get shot and die. They are persuaded into suicide bombings and the idea of losing them doesn’t exactly weigh on anyone’s shoulders.
But Why the Children…?
Simply, the children are easier to manipulate. They can get intimidated easily and are also more likely to obey blindly when afraid. They are prone to influences; at such a young age, they can effortlessly be persuaded of any ideology and grow with the conviction it is a cause worth dying for. Besides, of course, they don’t require salaries. A promise of a warm meal and a piece of clothes can be enough to tempt a poor needy child into volunteering to “serve his country.”
Years ago, when weapons were heavier and harder to use, the involvement of children in armed conflicts was way more limited than now. But currently, children are as capable of handling war machinery as adults. With weapons much lighter and simpler, 13-14-year olds are not at a disadvantage.
So on one hand, the children are a free and impressionable force to use and have on your side. On the other hand, the children themselves might flee to the army to escape poverty and death. In cases of a very conflicted homeland, war might be the only truth a child grows to see, and thus somehow joining the army becomes the natural next step. Boys and girls, once capable, offer their service to the army, because it is better to belong and learn to protect yourself and your family than to die in your house helplessly.
For their inexperienced minds and their lack of choice, many of these children collocate joining the army with survival. At least you have a better chance when you have a gun at hand! But they don’t recognize how they are abused and ripped off of their innocence in the process. A 15-year old who is forced to live among constant death and blood and misery will never grow up to a sane normal life. A child who kills tens of enemies and witnesses the horrors of wars: the murder, the torture, the sleepless nights, is bound to always be like this. He almost has no chance of surviving all the ugliness he has been immersed in. He grows up to become an active part of it.
International Laws and Regulations
Because the world owes its children at least an attempt at making their life and future better, international organizations have issued laws to protect youngsters from exploitation at wars. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child demonstrated in its 23rd article that the involvement of children under the age of 15 in hostilities should be ensured to not take place. The article states the following: “State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” You may notice though that the law has a few holes. Firstly, it requires the state to “take all feasible measures” to make sure the children don’t get involved in armed conflicts, but it doesn’t strictly prohibit it. Secondly, the law only opposes taking “a direct part in hostilities,” which might be interpreted as it has nothing against indirect involvement: a loophole that might be abused by many. Finally, it allows children above the age of 15 but under the age of 18 to volunteer to the army, an age of which young people are not even allowed to drink yet, let alone carry a gun and fight the enemy.
In 2002, the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts put an end to the recruitment of underage soldiers, stating directly that the state should prohibit and criminalize the recruitment of young men under the age of 18. The states are also obliged to demobilize the children that have been recruited or involved in conflicts, as well as providing them with the necessary physical and psychological assistance to recover from the traumas of war.
The involvement of children in wars also raises an ethical dilemma. Can a child be tried for a war crime? According to international law, children can indeed be tried for the crimes they commit during a war, but the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child limits the punishments the child is to receive, excluding life imprisonment and capital punishment.
Most courts emphasize the necessity of the rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers into the society, choosing to lay the blame on those who recruited the children rather than the children themselves, regardless of the nature of the crime or the degree of its severity.
In the following we will examine some of the countries where the recruitment of children is widespread and a social norm.
Facts about Child Soldiers in Africa
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), almost half of the world’s child soldiers are in Africa. These children can be as young as 7 years old and are either forcibly recruited or tricked into joining the army. Child soldiers in Africa are usually orphaned and poor children that are kidnapped and raised for a military life, thus called the “invisible children.” According to the Humanitarian News and Analysis, the number of child soldiers in Africa was estimated to be up to 120.000 children in 2004, a number too huge to pass unnoticed. Here are three prominent examples.
- Child soldiers in Uganda:
The Lord’s Resistance Army, Christian extremist militia, has kidnapped more than 30.000 children in Uganda who were forced to military life. Most of the girls are used as sex slaves or are forced into marriage. The country’s defense army also recruits small numbers of children as young as 13 years of age.
According to Nicola Ansell’s “Children, Youth and Development,” the Acholi, an ethnic group in Uganda, avoid attacking children to make later reconciliations between fighting parties possible: child soldiers in Uganda are not meant to be killed or tortured, although a lot of children die accidentally.
- Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone:
Child soldiers in Sierra Leone are depicted in a few books and movies. “Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism” is one book describing the murder, rape, and torture committed by a unit called The Small Boy Unit in the Sierra Leone civil war. In “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, he describes how child soldiers in Sierra Leone were provided with a drug named “Brown-Brown,” a mix of cocaine and smokeless gunpowder that was used to control the young men.
- Child Soldiers in Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo is estimated to have the highest number of child soldiers in the world. Kony 12, a short film, claims that the Lord’s Resistance Army has recruited up to 30.000 children in Congo, a number that might be too similar with that of the child soldiers in Uganda.
Many other African and non-African countries practice child soldiering on a big scale. Here are a few more child soldiers facts.
Child Soldiers Facts the World Needs to Know
The following are child soldiers facts globally and across the world. Take a moment to reflect on the reality each of them implies.
- Tens of thousands are serving in the armed conflicts around the world; some of these children are under the age of 10.
- According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 20 states have been reported to indulge child soldiering in governmental and non-governmental groups. 40 states still have the minimum age for recruitment under 18, so it is perfectly legal. The two last facts only concern the last two years.
- Also according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Renamo Forces in Mozambique had at least 10.000 soldiers, some of which are as young as 4 years old. In Angola, a 1995 survey found that 7 percent of the Angolan children have fired a weapon at someone at least once.
- According to the “Declaration on accession to the Optional Protocol,” 10 to 30 percent of child soldiers are girls. Girls are prone to sexual slavery and forced marriages.
- Some of the armies that forcibly recruit the children do heavily indoctrinate them. So eventually, the children grow up with the same mentality, carrying on the cycle of violence and child abuse. For example, the children recruited in Afghanistan civil wars grow up to be members of Taliban.
- Other countries that practice child soldiering or underage recruitment include Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Bahrain, India, Burma, Singapore, Lebanon, Iran, Israel and Palestine, Norway, United Kingdom, El Salvador, Colombia, Cuba, and many more.
So these are the facts and these are the numbers. Millions of children are born to cruel unfulfilling lives, with careless or too self-involved parents. Millions of other children are born into poverty and need and have to struggle through their life for a good opportunity of education and employment. But while those children still have a chance at making it work, child soldiers are deprived of hope and of their basic right of life. They are thrown into battles too harsh for their young bodies and minds. Their innocent years are stolen away from them, and with them any hope for a better reality. They are truly invisible; hardly anyone knows or sees, and hardly anyone can reach a hand to help.
Stretch a hand to help at Child Soldiers International, or educate your friends and family and make the cause a little bit visible today!