At any one time, more than 300,000 children under 18 girls and boys - are fighting as soldiers with government armed forces and armed opposition groups in more than 30 countries worldwide. In more than 85 countries, hundreds of thousands more under-18s have been recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a wide variety of non-state armed groups. Millions of children worldwide receive military training and indoctrination in youth movements and schools. While most child soldiers are aged between 15 and 18, the youngest age recorded in this report is seven.
These statistics represent only a snapshot of the problem, as children are recruited, captured, demobilised, wounded or even killed every day. Many of todays adult soldiers started out as children, growing up in military ranks; in many countries, with inadequate systems of birth registration, age can be difficult to determine.
Conflicts come and go as well; the more protracted the armed conflict, the more likely children will participate. In recent years, large numbers of children fighting in Latin America and the Middle East region have been replaced as conflicts recede by new generations of child soldiers in Africa and Asia. In the industrialised world, there is general trend away from conscription and towards volunteer, professional armies; combined with economic and social change this has made enlistment levels more difficult to sustain and placed downward pressures on recruitment age.
While many children fight in the frontline, others are used as spies, messengers, sentries, porters, servants and sexual slaves; children are often used to lay and clear landmines or conditioned to commit atrocities even against their own families and communities. Most child soldiers suffer physical abuse and other privations within the armed forces; in extreme cases, child soldiers are driven to suicide or murder when they cannot bear the mistreatment any longer. When children are used as soldiers, all children in a conflict zone are often suspected and targeted by the warring parties.
While some children are recruited forcibly, others are driven into armed forces by poverty, alienation and discrimination. Many children join armed groups after having experienced or witnessed abuse at the hands of state authorities. The widespread availability of modern lightweight weapons has also contributed to the child soldiers problem, enabling even the smallest children to become an efficient killers in combat. International political and military support for armed forces and armed groups using children, sometimes linked to the exploitation of natural resources like diamonds or oil, has in many cases deepened conflicts and the involvement of children.
Many governments and armed groups claim to use children because of a shortage of adult recruits. But often children are recruited because of their very qualities as children they can be cheap, expendable and easier to condition into fearless killing and unthinking obedience. Sometimes, children are supplied with drugs and alcohol to achieve these aims.
Often child soldiers are recruited from second countries, among refugee communities or ethnic disasporas, and trafficked across borders. Children from Angola, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda have fought alongside their adult sponsors in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Children have been recruited from various countries of western Europe by Kurdish and Kosovar armed groups.
In many countries, military training and indoctrination is provided through schools and youth movements, often as a means of bolstering defence preparedness or recruitment levels. In Iraq, thousands of children aged 10 to 15 participate in the Ashbal Saddam (Saddam Lion Cubs) youth movement formed after the 1991 Gulf War; training reportedly include small-arms use, hand-to-hand combat, and infantry tactics. In the United States of America, military-run programmes exist for children as young as eight. In the Young Marines, boys and girls from age 8-18 wear uniforms, are assigned military ranks, and participate in "boot camp" and rifle drills; the programme has over 200 units nation-wide, with 14,865 participants in early 2001.
The impact of soldiering on children
Child soldiers do not only lose their childhood and opportunities for education and development they risk physical injury, psychological trauma and even death. Children are often at an added disadvantage as combatants in relation to adults.
Widely perceived to be a cheap and expendable commodity, child soldiers tend to receive little or no training before being thrust into the front line. In the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of Iranian children, many straight from school, were sent with popular militias to the frontline, often given a symbolic key to the paradise promised them as martyrs. More recently, during the border war with Eritrea in 1999-2000, Ethiopian government forces reportedly press-ganged thousands of secondary schools students from marketplaces and villages, some of whom were used in human wave attacks across minefields. Childrens immaturity may lead them to take excessive risks according to one armed group commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, "[children] make good fighters because theyre young and want to show off. They think its all a game, so theyre fearless."
Children may begin participating in conflict from as young as seven. Some serve as porters (carrying food or ammunition) or messengers, others as spies. In Myanmar, for instance civilians, including children as young as 10, are forced to porter for the military and even used as human shields and minesweepers: the International Labour Organisation reported in 1999 that children had been forced to sweep roads with tree branches or brooms to detect or detonate mines. As soon as children are strong enough to handle an assault rifle or a semi-automatic weapon (normally at 10 years of age), they may be used in frontline roles. One former child soldier from Burundi stated that: "We spent sleepless nights watching for the enemy. My first role was to carry a torch for grown-up rebels. Later I was shown how to use hand grenades. Barely within a month or so, I was carrying an AK-47 rifle or even a G3."
When not actively engaged in combat, children can often be seen manning checkpoints. In Afghanistan, young students from religious schools in Pakistan perform military service with the Taleban, policing urban centres and checkpoints to free more experienced fighters for the front line. Others, such as 15-year-old Stevica in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, perform domestic tasks: "I prepare the weapons, I write reports from the field and I cook. I work for the Serb Tigers. There are 100 of us from Macedonia but we are all Serbs."
In many countries, girls too are used as soldiers, though generally in much smaller numbers than boys. Many governments and armed groups around the world are increasing the recruitment and functions performed by females in their armed forces, in many cases including girls under the age of 18. In Sri Lanka, for instance, young Tamil girls, often orphans, have been systematically recruited by the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since the mid-1980s. Dubbed "Birds of Freedom", many are reportedly trained as suicide bombers as they may better evade government security. In October 1999, 49 children, including 32 girls aged between 11 and 15 years of age were among the 140 LTTE cadres killed in a battle with the security forces at Ampakamam in the north.
Girls are at particular risk of rape, sexual slavery and abuse, although the exploitation of boys for these purposes is also reported. Concy A., a 14-year old girl abducted from Kitgum in Uganda by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and taken to camps in Sudan told how "we were distributed to men and I was given to a man who had just killed his woman. I was not given a gun, but I helped in the abductions and grabbing of food from villagers. Girls who refused to become LRA wives were killed in front of us to serve as a warning to the rest of us." Grace A. gave birth on open ground to a girl fathered by one of her [LRA] abductors: "I picked up a gun and strapped the baby on my back" and continued to fight the government forces. In Colombia, girls fighting with armed groups are frequently subjected to sexual abuse. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operates a =ECsexual freedomî policy and there are reports of young girls being fitted with inter-uterine devices; one 15-year-old girl soldier who was killed was found to be pregnant.
Even in the supposedly sophisticated armed forces of industrialised countries, young recruits especially girls are subject to hazing, harassment and abuse. In recent years, cases of bullying and humiliation of under-18 recruits in the British Army have included mock execution, forced simulation of sexual acts, regimental baths in vomit and urine and the forced ingestion of mud. In August 1997, a 17-year-old recruit to the British Army was forced to perform a sex act and raped by a drunken instructor while she was on manoeuvres. She told the judge that she " didnt shout out because he is a sergeant and a higher rank. You dont disrespect your boss." (The instructor was jailed for seven years in November 1998.) In 1999, one school district in the US state of Washington banned recruiters from schools after several Army recruiters from a local recruiting station were investigated for sexual harassment of high school girls.
Besides the risk of death or injury in combat, child soldiers suffer disproportionately from the rigours of military life. Younger children collapse under heavy loads; malnutrition, respiratory and skin infections and other ailments are frequent. Child soldiers may also be at additional risk of drug and alcohol abuse (often used to recruit children or desensitise them for violence), sexually transmitted disease, including HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies. Auditory and visual problems are common, along with landmine injuries.
Harsh training regimes and other forms of ill-treatment often lead to casualties and even deaths among young recruits. In Paraguay, 56 under-18s died during their military service, six of them under the age of 18 in 2000 alone. On 3 April 2001, 17-year-old Hector Ad=B7n Maciel was shot by a fellow conscript after he refused to give him cigarettes. He died due to inadequate medical care as the Armed Forces argued that intensive care would be too expensive. Maciel was recruited at 16 after the armed forces reportedly falsified his mothers signature on documents giving her consent. Between 1982 and 1999, 92 recruits aged 16 and 17 died during service with the British Army, including four deaths as result of battle wounds or injuries. In 1998 one 16-year-old Royal Marine recruit drowned wearing full kit during a river-crossing exercise during a 30-week commando training course; he was the fourth to die during training in two and a half years.
Children are often treated brutally and punishments for mistakes or desertion are severe. In May 2001 four children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, aged between 14 and 16, were sentenced to death by a military court under a special law designed to crack down on looting and robberies by gangs of child soldiers. In Ethiopia, young conscripts claimed that comrades who tried to escape during attacks were shot; others who returned alive after battles were reportedly ill-treated, charged with desertion and even imprisoned in pits in the ground. In September 2000, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child raised a general concern about the application of military laws to under-18 recruits, in possible contradiction with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and international standards on juvenile justice.
In many countries, child soldiers who are captured, escape or surrender often face ill-treatment, torture and even death. On 26 May 2000 in Nepal, one girl aged 17 was killed with five other Maoist suspects in Urma village, allegedly after being wounded and captured. In Burundi, the government has imprisoned and tortured children, many accused of collaborating with armed opposition groups, for long periods without charge or trial. Others face retaliation from the community and are given little protection. On 25 October 2000 in Sri Lanka, a mob from nearby villages attacked Bindunuwewa rehabilitation camp killing 26 inmates between the ages of 14 and 23; an inquiry is underway into the circumstances. In Sierra Leone, many demobilised children have been re-recruited by armed groups, sometimes from rehabilitation camps themselves.
Whenever even a few children are involved as soldiers in a conflict, all children in that particular community or area - civilian or combatant - come under suspicion. For instance, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and UN Special Rapporteurs have expressed concern about cases of extra-judicial execution, torture and disappearance of juveniles suspected of involvement with armed groups in the northeast states of India. On 15 August 2000 in Colombia, an army unit near Pueblo Rico, Antioquia, mistook a party of schoolchildren for a guerrilla unit and opened fire, killing six children aged between 6 and 10 and wounding six others.
The full psychological impact on children of participation in armed conflict, especially for those who have witnessed or committed atrocities, is only beginning to be understood. According to one 14-year-old girl abducted by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone in January 1999, "Ive seen people get their hands cut off, a ten-year-old girl raped and then die, and so many men and women burned alive . . . So many times I just cried inside my heart because I didnt dare cry out loud." From Algeria, one report cites boys who appeared to be around the age of 12 decapitating a 15-year-old girl and then playing 'catch' with her head.
However there is growing experience today in many parts of the world with the physical and psycho-social rehabilitation of child soldiers and their successful reintegration into society, some of which is documented in this report. Often these programs combine the latest developments in psychology and child development with traditional custom and ritual. The adjustment from highly-militarised environments to civilian life can be extremely difficult, particularly for those who have lost or are rejected by their families or in societies where social infrastructure has been shattered by years of war. Special attention needs to be paid in such programs to the experience and needs of girls, who have often been overlooked in assistance programs and disadvantaged by traditional patriarchal social values.
These programs are vitally important to peacebuilding efforts and the long term stability and development of post-conflict societies. The United Nations, including in Security Council Resolution 1314 of August 2000, has recognised the importance of incorporating the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former child soldiers into peace negotiations and agreements, and donors are committing more resources to this critical area. But a more consistent and long-term commitment is desperately needed if this problem is to be squarely addressed.
COALITION TO STOP THE USE OF CHILD SOLDIERS, PO BOX 22696, LONDON N4 3ZJ. UK. TEL: (44)(0) 20 7226 0606
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