Child soldiers are individuals, under the age of 18, who serve in government forces and armed opposition groups. A child can serve a variety of roles in these groups, such as fighting in combat zones, working in hospitality, and maintaining the upkeep of the bases through activities like cooking and cleaning. Girls, more so than boys, are often exposed to sexual violence.
The immorality of these situations lies in the fact that children are easily manipulated and coerced into participating in military conflicts. Due to their vulnerability, trusting nature, and lack of power, many children feel compelled to help those around them. The exploitation of innocent children to become child soldiers is widely recognized as one of the most morally deplorable practices across the world. Compounding the issue is the long-lasting psychosocial impacts that the children experience from their trauma in the battlefield. Studies by psychologists suggest that after the children serve in the military, the large majority of them are diagnosed with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depressive disorders. This report will focus on the unlawful and deeply unethical recruitment methods that armed groups use to create child soldiers. I will then focus on some of the main reasons that children join regional armed combat groups and the long-lasting psychosocial impacts of being a child soldier. Thereafter, I will focus on the core strategies that international organisations are implementing to reduce the number of child soldiers across the world.
Currently, there are approximately 300,000 child soldiers across at least fourteen countries globally. Children are combatants in almost three-quarters of all conflicts globally, and girls make up approximately 30% of them. However, boys and girls have different roles within an armed military group. For instance, boys are more likely to be involved in armed conflict and in traditionally male roles, such as cooking. On the other hand, girls are often recruited as child soldiers for sexual purposes, forced marriages, and for typical female roles, such as cleaning. One former child soldier from Liberia retold how she was raped multiple times. When she became pregnant, she stated that boys repeatedly pushed on her stomach “to get rid of the baby.” After the war, the trauma the girls developed led them to be at an increased risk of further sexual violence, stigmatization, and STIs once they left. This was seen in the Congo, where girls who were raped during their time as child soldiers were isolated and shamed by their families upon their return. As a result, many girls chose to return back to militias in order to avoid such humiliating stigma.
Gaining membership into a military group can be voluntary or involuntary. Children can become soldiers involuntarily through abduction, conscription, and being born into the armed group. Abduction is the most common method of involuntary recruitment. There are many unlawful and unethical methods that are continuously used to encourage child soldiers to participate in military combat groups. Some of these include “threats, intimidation and exhausting endurance training to physically and emotionally break children down” in order to ensure that they will comply with all orders from the terrorist group. While other child soldiers want membership into military groups to evade poverty, to protect their local community, or for other visceral psychological reasons such as revenge, Accord (2016) has stated that those recruited from voluntary means do it for push-and-pull reasons. Push factors include poverty, lack of education and employment, and/or family violence, whereas pull factors include seeking security, a sense of belonging to an identity or ideology, and/or economic advantage.
There are myriads of different armed groups that recruit child soldiers globally. According to CNN, ISIS currently has approximately 1,500 child soldiers that have been recruited and trained to fight for the terrorist group. For example, in Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, carried out forced recruitment of children. Kony’s undertaking led to the abduction of approximately sixty to eighty thousand of mainly male adolescents into the army. Another example of involuntary conscription was shown in the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), where thousands of children were recruited to join the Revolutionary United Front, the main rebel group in the war. Some of the children joined on a voluntary basis, yet, many were recruited through coercive and intimidating tactics. Approximately 50% of the children targeted and abducted were aged 15 or younger and as such, are likely to have developed longer-term psychosocial problems.
A large majority of child soldiers who are involved in military conflicts become affected with psychological disorders. This is seen in Peru, where a group by the name of “Shining Path” recruited child soldiers. Once a child gained membership, they were instructed to eat hearts, liver, and kidneys, and drink the blood of their victims in order to instil a hate for human life. These experiences are vile and traumatic and often lead to long-lasting psychological symptoms that often present to clinicians as PTSD. The strongest indicator of PTSD from former child soldiers is physical violence, which can either involve witnessing forms of it or participating in it. In a study by Klasen and associates (2011) of former Ugandan soldiers with 330 participants, 33% had PTSD, 37% had depression and 78% had Developmental trauma disorder (DTD). This study found that symptoms of PTSD resulted from the trauma they were exposed to during wartime. Whereas the symptoms exhibited by those who had a DTD diagnosis came from a combination of experiences of family violence, lack of social support, and depression.
According to the Child Soldiers International group, there are three ways in which we can reduce the amounts and levels of harm to child soldiers globally. One is to campaign to prevent child recruitment. The others are to support better reintegration strategies of children into their families and/or communities and also, to hold those who use children for military purposes to account. The reintegration and rehabilitation of those affected – especially women – often fails. Women who are sexually violated during their time as a child soldier often experience shame when they return home. One 16-year-old-girl reported that it is “better to die there than come home and be rejected.” According to Child Soldiers International, if women are not supported when they return to their home, they will return to the militia and hence, reintegration will fail. This is one such example of the importance of ensuring that former girl soldiers and their families be given the appropriate education, vocational training, and medical care to ensure they can live with security, welfare, and safety in the long term.
Despite the best efforts of international organizations, the use of child soldiers is an omnipresent issue for many regions globally. Armed military groups, such as ISIS are recruiting child soldiers at an increasing rate. ISIS, alongside many other armed groups, acknowledge that children are more easily exploited and manipulated.
In the meantime, the UN continues to appeal to the international community to take more action to reduce the number of child soldiers worldwide. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, also encourages all to advocate for children to not belong to national security forces or military combat groups. The trauma that children experience during wartime or when they are involved in military conflict zones are neverending. The large majority of child soldiers, who survive the conflict struggle to assimilate back into their homes, experience long-lasting, and trauma-induced psychological symptoms. As well, then the child is able to return home, greater education is needed around the stigmitization surrounding sexual and physical violence to protect the child from returning to militias.
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