Children in Armed Conflict

The last of the worst forms of child labor to be discussed is the involvement of children in armed conflict. Article 38 of the CRC requires that those taking a direct part in combat must be at least 15 years old, and children younger than 15 may not be recruited into the armed forces. An Optional Protocol to the CRC in 2000 raised these ages to 18. It states that there will be no compulsory recruitment of children under 18 and voluntary recruitment must be truthful, genuinely voluntary, and only with the consent of parents or guardians. As of this writing, 147 countries have ratified this protocol, including the United States.

Myanmar was the country whose government was most likely to recruit and use child soldiers. However, in 2012, in conjunction with the United

Nations, they created an 18-month plan to release and reintegrate the children currently in their armed forces. Additionally, the plan included methods to prevent future recruitment. While this is an ambitious goal, there is a set timetable for actions to occur and methods to determine whether the goals are being reached (“No more child soldiers,” 2012).

Child soldiers not only take part in combat but may also serve as spies, messengers, porters, and forced sexual partners. In some cases, children voluntarily join the forces, while in others, they are forcibly recruited. However, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict successfully argued before the International Criminal Court that there should be no distinction made between these two recruitment methods. She stated that this “choice” was made in the context of poverty, familial loss, and lack of protection; therefore, it could not truly be regarded as voluntary. The Court agreed stating that “children could not give 'informed’ consent because they possessed limited understanding of the short-term and long-term consequences of their choice and actions and did not control or fully comprehend the structures and forces with which they were faced” (United Nations, 2012, p. 4).

Children often “voluntarily” join armed forces in a search for stability in the upheaval generated by armed conflict. It may be the only manner by which to get daily food and some semblance of protection from harm. Some child soldiers have said that they joined the fighting to escape the poverty in their families (UNICEF, 2001). They may believe the propaganda disseminated about the conflict (Shakya, 2011). Other children join to get revenge upon the killers of their families; not to do so would be a great shame in their culture (Singer, 2005). However, in most situations, the children are forcibly recruited in some manner (Singer, 2005).

This was seen most vividly through the work of one of the most infamous users of child soldiers, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA, a rebel group in Uganda, has been fighting against the government since 1986 (Briggs, 2005). The LRA kidnapped as many as 25,000 children during the height of the conflict, 7,500 of them girls (Amnesty International,

2005). The boys were trained to be soldiers and the girls were given to an officer as a “wife” and forced to become sex slaves. Typically the children were coerced into the army by being forced to kill those they know, such as family and friends. They then felt such guilt that they thought they could not return to society after such shame. The following quote from a child kidnapped by the LRA illustrates this method (Human Rights Watch, 1997):

One boy tried to escape [from the rebels], but he was caught.... His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, “Why are you doing this?” I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear his blood on our arms. . . . They said we had to do this so we would not fear death and so we would not try to escape. . . . I still dream about the boy from my village who I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me and saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying.

In order to avoid being captured by the LRA, approximately 30,000 children slept en masse at their schools, churches, hospitals, and other central locations every night, watched over by the adults in their communities (Amnesty International, 2005). These children were known as the “night commuters” for their nightly journey. The conflict has subsided substantially—the LRA is estimated to only have approximately 500 members (United Nations Security Council, 2012), but as of this writing, Joseph Kony remains free and continues to terrorize civilians. As of 2012, they had left Uganda and were operating within South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic. In the DRC, they were repeating their tactics of forcible recruitment and continuing to force children to kill their family or other children. In the Central African Republic, they had developed the new tactic of kidnapping people for ransom in the form of food, clothing, or other goods (United Nations Security Council, 2012).

While countries in Africa often receive the bulk of attention for this issue, countries in other regions are not immune. The use of children by rebel groups and militias is widespread in Colombia. The government has used children for intelligence gathering, but the vast majority fight for the guerrilla groups— the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) (United

Nations Security Council, 2012). Children as young as 8 years old are recruited by FARC and face severe punishment if they attempt to return home. Children are used to spy, run messages, and place bombs, as well as participate in direct combat (Briggs, 2005). (See Chapter 5, War and Conflict, for a more detailed explanation of this conflict.) Another country that had a large number of child soldiers was Sri Lanka. The rebel group known as the Tamil Tigers received international condemnation during the conflict there. Approximately 40% to 60% of their forces were under the age of 18, most of them recruited when they were between 10 and 16. The Tamil Tigers were particularly known for their use of girls in direct fighting; about half of the soldiers were female (Singer, 2005).

Once child soldiers have been released from the armed force with which they were fighting, it can be difficult for them to reintegrate into society. The biopsychosocial approach common to examining human behavior in the social environment can be a useful tool for examining the barriers to reintegration. Biologically, they may have suffered wounds from combat in addition to having been undernourished. Thus, physically they may encounter difficulties. As discussed, they may have been forced to kill family or community members by the group that captured them. This, as well as the other deaths they caused or witnessed, can create psychological difficulties. Socially, the former child soldiers may encounter resistance in the community to which they are returning due to anger at their actions while in combat. In addition, they will encounter difficulties in education as they are typically substantially older than other schoolchildren at their level due to their lack of educational opportunities while involved with armed forces.

Reintegration can be particularly difficult for girls. One reason is that they are often not viewed as soldiers since they typically do not participate in combat. As a result, they often do not receive the reintegration services that boys do, leaving their psychological trauma unresolved. Additionally, due to the nature of the services they were forced to perform, they may be rejected by their family and community, especially if they return with children born of the rape.

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