Much progress has been made over the past four years within the international legal framework to protect children from being recruited into soldiery, but what next?
More needs to be done to ensure that these Treaties are upheld, and that those responsible for this violation of Child Rights are dealt with. This requires a better understanding not just of the nature of conflicts, but also those circumstances that allow children to take part.
This harrowing account from UNICEF documents the reality of 69 children interviewed in six countries in the region, with an average recruitment age of 13. While individual experiences are varied, the conflicts have some common features. They are often geographically localised, of low intensity, rooted in ethnic or religious identities and directly affect only a small proportion of the population. A common strategy of deliberate terror against civilians is employed and the use of child soldiers is widespread.
In seeking to understand, and listen to these children, a number of key findings emerge:
- Many believed the environment they left violated their rights more – poverty was mentioned as a factor influencing decisions to join and many talked of being treated better by the soldiers than their families.
- Children between 12 and 14 years face the highest risk – more needs to be done to better understand the needs of this age group and develop appropriate alternatives and life goals to prevent them becoming involved in conflict.
- Child ex- combatants feel the loss of childhood, especially opportunities for education – many expressed a desire to return to education and regretted their loss of it during the war.
- Not all child soldiers are boys – although most combatants are. Girls are used mainly in support roles and for sexual purposes. More needs to be done to address the violent sexual abuse experienced by many girls and the special needs of girl soldiers.
- All children suffer psycho-social consequences of participating in armed conflict – experiencing a persistent fear of death, alcohol and drug abuse from an early age, difficulty in controlling anger and an inability to concentrate at school.
The stories of the young people participating in this study highlight common factors and issues that can guide policy and inform the design of effective interventions, such as:
- Ratify the Optional Protocol on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and other legal instruments relevant to the protection of children in armed conflict and ensure that national laws are compatible with international legal standards.
- Provide training to military and non-state actors on child rights and protection, as well as gender sensitivity.
- Promote systematic demobilisation of child soldiers and provide support for reintegration with an emphasis on access to education and vocational training, including building capacity for appropriate psycho-social support for ex-child combatants.
- Identify and promote alternative non- violent ways for children to contribute to the cause of their people and communities.
- Develop prevention strategies to reduce the factors that make children vulnerable to ‘voluntary’ recruitment.
- Ensure participation, in safety and dignity of children affected by armed conflict, including child soldiers, in all research, advocacy and programme planning activities.