Hundreds of thousands of child combatants fought in recent civil wars in Africa, yet little is known about the long-term impact of child soldiering. Using data collected in Uganda, this paper from the Households in Conflict Network (HiCN), finds that, contrary to existing evidence, that the major consequences of child soldiering are educational and economic. Exposure to conflict also seems to increase political participation by abductees, and the psychological impacts of war appear to be moderate and concentrated in a minority. More research is needed to inform evidence-based post-conflict policies and programs.
From 1988 to 2004 the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda abducted youth as recruits to their guerilla force. More than 60,000 child soldiers are estimated to have been abducted by the LRA, taken anywhere from one day to ten years.
The few studies that exist of the impact of combat on abductees are interview-based or medical in nature. They conclude that psychological trauma and social dislocation are the major consequences of child soldiering. But these studies seldom address impacts other than social/psychological and are often anectotal. They seldom use representative samples or address attrition, selection bias or micro-level impacts. Economists and political scientists have produced little theory or evidence on the economic and political consequences of violent conflict.
This paper draws on Phase 1 of the Survey of War Affected Youth- an original, representative survey of 741 youth in northern Uganda, 462 of whom are former abductees. The survey was conducted in concert with a counseling psychologist, Jeannie Annan, and several humanitarian agencies. Techniques were applied to minimize sample attrition due to migration and mortality and to address selection bias. War and post-war experiences of former combatants are self-reported and retrospective. Measures of violence and other impact indicators are drawn from widely-used survey instruments.
The survey found that:
- Since abductees lost their education years to combat, they are nearly twice as likely to be functionally illiterate than non-abductees.
- Abductees subsequently earn nearly one third less than their non-abducted peers. Work found by abductees tends to be of a lower skill and capital-intensity.
- Some socialisation of former abductees into post-conflict violent/aggressive behavior is indicated, but this could reflect a greater willingness of former abductees to admit to this behavior.
- There is little evidence of social exclusion of abductees. Self-reported acceptance rates back into the community are high.
- Abductees are much more likely to vote and participate in community and political life than non-abductees.
- Psychological impacts appear to be moderate; serious psychological trauma is concentrated in a minority of abductees. The average difference in levels of psychological distress between abducted and non-abducted youth is relatively modest.
There are several shortcomings in terms of research into the long-term consequences of child soldiering. The following is recommended:
- Based on the results of this survey, adult literacy, skills education, agricultural improvement and enterprise development programs may be the best use of development funding of post-conflict programs;
- More research is needed in more conflict zones, with greater attention paid to representative samples, accounting for attrition and careful identification of comparison groups; and
- The aim of this research should be to move from ad hoc to evidence-based policy in post-conflict reintegration, redevelopment and peace building.