Save the Children Sweden (SC-S) on 17 October wrapped up a five-day 'train the trainers' workshop for senior military personnel in Saly, Senegal, 80km south of the capital Dakar. The training and cartoon guide are part of efforts to bridge the gap in soldiers' education levels when it comes to children's rights.
"Children are often the first.and most affected by conflict. And soldiers are the first people deployed on the ground," said SC-S West Africa regional representative, Anniken Elisson Tyden. "If they understand and better recognise the specific rights and needs of children, they'll know how to respond to them better. That's the aim of our training sessions, which have shown that behind the military uniforms are mothers and fathers."
The "Good Soldier" cartoon book has been produced in West African national languages, as well as in French and English. It instructs the military on children's basic needs, as well as taboos: children must not be enlisted into helping the armed forces and must not be sexually abused.
Thirteen countries in the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, took part in the Senegal training, which prepares officers to train their soldiers. Over the past eight years, 86,000 soldiers have been trained by SC-S about child protection before, during and after conflicts, according to the organisation.
Organisers said such trainings have exposed troublesome knowledge gaps in military ranks about child protection.
"Before coming here today.I thought that the definition of a child was a bit ambiguous," said Sougou Fara, a marine from Senegal who attended a past training session. "Everyone had their own definition. Now I know that a child is someone who is under 18 years old."
Some military officers said they had thought recruiting children to do small jobs such as guarding checkpoints or cooking meals for troops was beneficial to children.
Former fighter with Cote d'Ivoire's rebel 'Forces Nouvelles', About Touré, told IRIN: "We thought we were helping the kids by giving them 100 CFA francs [20 US cents] here and there to come and polish our boots and things. But we realise[d] they should be in school and not at a checkpoint."
Research by UNICEF claims that at any given time over 300,000 children, some as young as eight, are exploited in armed conflicts in over 30 countries around the world. More than two million children are estimated to have died as a direct result of armed conflicts since 1990.
Some African social norms do not place a high priority on children's rights, according to Laurent Duvillier, SC-S West Africa communications officer. "The respecting of elders in many African societies has almost become the 'non-respect' of children. What we need to teach here is a mutual respect, but we also have to reflect African ways," he told IRIN. "The rights but also the responsibilities of the child are two sides of the same coin and this 'African nature' should be reflected in the training."
The SC-S sessions draw on both the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every country in West Africa has signed up to the Convention, which was ratified in 1989.
"Most of the soldiers being trained aren't aware there are legal structures regarding child rights," Captain Abdoulie Manneh of the Gambian Armed Forces told IRIN. "We realised that this wasn't on the curriculum. but soldiers need to know about it and take it into account. It's important they know that if they mistreat a child, they can be prosecuted, that it is against the law."
Organisers calculate that 80 percent of armed forces in the region have child protection units although just six of 15 West African countries have integrated child rights into their military training - Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Niger and Togo.
"Even if a country is not in conflict, this training is essential because UN peacekeeping forces are drawn from many African nations and are often dispatched quickly," said Save the Children's Duvillier. "But each army must take ownership of its own training. A soldier listens to a soldier better than to a civilian."