Every day, untold thousands of youth under the age of 18 are conscripted to fight in the wars of adults. The failure to fight this problem is one of the great failures of modern diplomacy. Child soldiers are exploited in Yemen, Chad, Somalia, Myanmar, and other nations most vulnerable to violence and conflict.
The key to fighting the military exploitation of youth is first identifying high-risk areas. But what makes a high-risk area? In 2016, Child Soldiers International identified nineteen countries with child soldiers active within their borders, with a further eight earning the status “unclear.” All would be considered underdeveloped. Child soldiers are almost universally from low-income areas, and many of the factors that lead to the creation and proliferation of rogue military groups double as factors of involvement and recruitment.
The first stages of involvement begin here, with brutality from the security forces, poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of opportunity contributing to overall underdevelopment. When aid is pocketed by corrupt politicians and violence forces out NGOs, citizens are stuck in a vicious cycle. This leads to even more unrest and when guns are cheap and the government inept, rebel groups form.
These situations highlight the need for both international assistance and local coordination. In 2017, Afghanistan’s defense minister, Tariq Shah Bahrami, announced the culmination of years of effort to codify Afghan child protection laws into the new Child Protection Policy in order to shield children from the brunt of violence in conflicts. However, this strategy almost exclusively relies on military relations with civilians and heavy police involvement, in part because Afghanistan lacks the resources to fund education or infrastructure, instead preferring to rely on their already-built, U.S.-backed military. It’s a powerful effort but where was the help from the international community?
The UNSC’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM), established by UNSC resolution 1612 in 2015, gathers intel on child soldier use and reports to a subsidiary body, which then uses the data to make recommendations of action to the Security Council. The MRM is also used by the UNSC Working Group on child soldiers, which is emblematic of successful cooperation between a supranational body and individual states. Although groups have been established on-site in multiple countries and have helped coordinate efforts, they are still reactionary, rely on UN approval, and are limited in the action they can take while adding an extra level of bureaucracy. The institutions to help exist, but on their own can do little. They often ignore the diverse factors of the problem and rely on “wrist-slapping” international agreements that make everyone feel good, yet do little to alleviate the plight on the ground. Real solutions must be tight collaborations between local communities and international institutions.
The constant fear of civil war and the stresses of poverty and brutality are easily turned to anger and violence. In Asia, an estimated 34% of child soldiers are under the age of 12. In Africa, an estimated 60% are under the age of 16. According to the University of Rochester, at this point in development, a child’s emotional and decision-making processes are not yet completely linked, and the brain is more malleable to suggestion and trauma, making extraction and recovery efforts far more difficult.
Education and awareness projects, such as the Red Hand Day Campaign employed by Human Rights Watch in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and across the world, can help both limit exposure to damaging elements in a compromising situation and can inform communities on the reality of the military exploitation of children. However, these programs will only ever have limited success, and must be a smaller part of a larger solution.
Once a child soldier is being used by a group, it presents the greatest challenge in ending the military exploitation of youth. In Yemen, Saudi forces have been blamed for the majority of the war’s child casualties, yet Saudi Arabia consistently claims that they were targeting soldiers.The longer a child stays with the group, the more useful they are. However, attempting to quickly extract children from combat situations or from the clutches of groups often leads to unnecessary deaths and is more likely to result in the deaths of the children.
Recovery and reintegration are arguably the most important aspect of a child soldier’s journey, crucial in helping both communities and individuals recover from the damages of conflict and in avoiding dangerous relapses into armed activity. A child soldier returning to their community can be faced with a host of challenges- social isolation, negative attitudes towards former combatants, phycological injury sustained during conflict, and a lack of education and/or job skills. Although international aid groups and national governments have made efforts to help former child soldiers recover, there is little hard data measuring the success of such efforts. The UN’s official recovery effort, the UNICEF transitory care centers, take in former child soldiers for a three-month care period aimed at healing both physical and mental wounds and preparing children for reintegration. But what happens once the three months are up? What happens to the thousands of children not lucky enough to find themselves in a care center? Since 2007, Dr. Theresa Betancourt of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health has been working to promote awareness on child soldier recovery.
Physical injuries are often the first stumbling block in the long road to recovery. According to UNICEF, 40% of child soldiers are girls. Psychological trauma and sexual assault are common. Many former child soldiers also suffer from drug addiction. Betancourt’s team compiled data while conducting research in Sierra Leone through interviews with former child soldiers. Of those interviewed, 70% had witnessed beatings or torture. 63% had witnessed violent death. 52% witnessed large-scale massacres. 45% of girls and 5% of boys had been raped. 39% had been regularly forced to take drugs. 27% had killed more than one person.
These are inexcusable numbers. Stopping the circumstances that lead to these acts is crucial, but helping those who have survived an ordeal and have been exposed to such awfulness is equally important. Many of the affected nations lack the resources to adequately help youth recover. For example, Sierra Leone, one of the most prolific case studies in the realm of child soldiers, has a single psychiatrist for a population of 7.5 million and he’s set to retire in a few years. The majority of the recovery centers in Yemen are Saudi-funded and run, leading to concerns about ideological coercion and the use of recovery centers as political bargaining chips. UNICEF and NGO centers in Africa operate with inadequate funding and a lack of local support, and there is no data to measure how effective the transitory center approach is. The reality is that local governments often lack the funds to operate effective programs, and that international actors cannot help without local support and knowledge and consistent planning.
Peace and prosperity are not one-stop destinations, but we know progress is possible. The 2006 hybrid courts in Sierra Leone combined local justice with UN guidance to successfully punish warmongers, corrupt profiteers, and violators of human rights. United Nations missions overseeing local disarmament programs to successfully cut down on the number of child soldiers in Rwanda and Chad. Myriads of small-scale local programs helping former child soldiers. We can’t continue our previous patterns of intervention. A new light must be shed on this horrific violation of the rights of children, and in turn, new paths to peace and recovery will open up.