You are in: Home :: News Story
By Kellie Anderson
Those who have seen the renowned photograph of three boys playing
"war games" in Bosnia are likely to wonder about the emotional
well-being of children exposed to and used in conflict. The image
depicts one boy mockingly holding a handgun to his temple while
another aims a pistol with a confident smirk on his face. The third
boy shows off a perfect salute as he stands in their playground-- a
bombed out garage.
Children as young as seven years old are participating in armed
hostilities in countries all over the world, including the Balkans,
Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Burma.
Some children volunteer as warriors but many are abducted or sold
into service, where they are often abused and indoctrinated into a
blind faith in their new mission. With efficiency in mind,
government armies as well as opposition and rebel groups recruit
impressionable and fearless boys and girls.
Children have been recruited into combat for a long time but
usually as a supplement to an adult force. Increasingly, however,
children are being used in place of adults. Requiring less food and
less training, they also accept the poor conditions of war more
readily than their adult counterparts.
Modern war also makes it easier to involve children than
previously. Arms trade on an expanding international scale has
allowed a proliferation of inexpensive weapons light enough for
children to handle. New and improved anti-personnel landmines
designed to maim are positioned in environments where children are
likely to wander. In many internal conflicts today, armies use
children soldiers to explore extremely dangerous territory for the
presence of landmines ahead of adult soldiers.
The implication of involving children in war is no longer only
about warfare but also about crime. Today's conflicts are fueled by
the need to protect wealth as well as territory. In Colombia,
children learn all about drugs. In Sierra Leone, it's diamonds.
These "skills" set them up for a future in crime as they emerge from
war remembering no other way of life.
Young stone-throwers in Palestine face psychological issues just
as do Angolan teens that are more proficient with an AK-47 than with
a pencil. They have witnessed brutality and murder, becoming
desensitized to suffering. The challenge for post-war societies is
to assist these ex-combatants in turning away from gangs and crime
and toward productive lifestyles as young adults.
It Takes a Coalition
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states
that mothers and children are entitled to special care and
assistance, and that all children have the right to social
protection. Latest UN figures, however, estimate that more than
300,000 children under 18 years of age are participating in armed
conflicts around the world.
Africa accounts for more than 40 percent of the world's child
soldiers. Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda,
Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda are among the countries with the
highest rates of child soldiers. Olara Otunnu, UN Special
Representative for Children in Conflict, is dedicated to persuading
parties to African conflicts to recognize the needs of children as
they draft peace agreements. These issues, Otunnu says, are not just
African but universal, and fundamental.
According to current international law, children can be recruited
into war from the age of 15. The United Nations' Convention on the
Rights of the Child states that member countries must ensure that
persons under 15 do not participate directly in hostilities. No
international law or mandate, however, has recognized the existence
of child soldiers or made provisions for their rehabilitation and
reintegration into society. Furthermore, no peace agreement, to
date, ending civil conflict in Africa has included a requirement for
the demobilization of child soldiers.
The most significant action related to child soldiers is the
Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,
which raises the minimum age for military recruitment and use in
combat to 18 years. It awaits ratification.
In 1997, UNICEF drafted the Cape Town Principles and Best
Practices on the Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and
on Demobilization and Social Reintegration of Child Soldiers in
Africa. This document recommends actions to be taken by governments
and communities that will ratify and implement the Optional Protocol
and end violations of children's rights. A Conference on the Use of
Child Soldiers held in Maputo, Mozambique in April, 1999 further
emphasized these ideas and resulted in the Maputo Declaration on the
Use of Child Soldiers.
In 1998, six NGOs formed the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child
Soldiers to end the recruitment and participation of children below
the age of 18 years in armed conflict. Key members of the coalition
include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International
Federation Terre des Hommes, International Save the Children
Alliance (represented by Swedish Save the Children), Jesuit Refugee
Service, and Quaker UN Office. This group advocates for ratification
of the Optional Protocol by taking concrete actions such as
high-profile lobbying campaigns to protect and assist child victims
The Coalition is also responsible for a worldwide campaign to
increase awareness about child soldiers. Rädda Barnen (Swedish Save
the Children) holds the world's most comprehensive database on this
subject and publishes information on the number of child soldiers in
affected countries. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
published a detailed report in April, 1999 assessing the extent of
military recruitment and use of African children on a
The U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers supports the
international effort by advocating for the U.S. government to join
the ban on the recruitment and participation of children under 18 in
armed conflict. This coalition is headed by Amnesty International,
Human Rights Watch, Center for Defense Information, American Friends
Service, and Youth Advocate Program International. These groups are
also pressuring the U.S. government to raise its own enlistment age
to 18 and to eliminate military aid that facilitates the use of
child soldiers by others. As in the case of the land mines campaign,
the United States is supportive of ending such atrocities in theory
but unwilling to give up its own right to recruit 17-year-olds into
the American armed forces.
The rapidly increasing level of attention focused on the topic of
child soldiers is promising. The United Nations appointed Graca
Machel, former Education Minister of Mozambique, to undertake a
landmark study in 1996 called the "Impact of Armed Conflict on
Children." The study, based on research and interviews in Africa,
Latin America, Europe, and Asia, has set the tone for a series of
international conferences, the most recent of which was held in
Montevideo this past July, involving government representatives, the
UN, NGOs, and aid workers.
A recent development is the unanimous signing by International
Labor Organization (ILO) country delegates in June of a new ILO
treaty. The ILO Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate
Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour specifically
prohibits forced recruitment of children in armed conflict, as well
as child slavery, prostitution and forced labor.
Even if the minimum age for recruitment and deployment in armed
conflict is raised to 18 years, how can the law be enforced? In some
regions of the world, national legislation (not to mention
international law) isn't always respected in practice. Government
armies, civil defense groups and rebel forces have all been found
guilty of operating outside of the law. Often the children used in
conflict begin as guards and porters-- roles that seem acceptable.
But they are quickly matriculated and able to strip and reassemble
an assault weapon in no time.
Another challenge to enforcement is trying to confirm the age of
young potential soldiers. In Africa, for example, documentation
verifying the age of a child is not always available. Moreover,
terminology such as "apparent age of 18" is used in the national
legislation of Kenya, Zambia and other countries regarding
recruitment into the military, creating more ambiguities.
This issue of enforcement leads to the question "Is age 18 a
western definition of a child?" In many African societies, children
perform adult jobs by necessity. They farm the land to help the
family survive, dropping out of school early. Some marry and have
children before their teens are over. Traditional networks of social
support make this reality acceptable, not abusive.
There is also the old saying "All's fair in love and war." By
definition, war includes aggression, and atrocities are often a
possible consequence. Through efforts to remove land mines and
protect children from being recruited, are we trying to make our
wars safer? Yes, say the coalitions, the UN and others who assert
that certain things are unacceptable, even in war.
The treaty to ban landmines is a clear example of the
mobilization of moral outrage into effective action. If we are
equally outraged by the fact that deploying children in conflict
situations is an abuse of their human rights, then the Optional
Protocol may have a chance.
Reorienting Lost Children
Focusing efforts solely on the level of international policy and
law, however, is not enough. Even if a resolution were to be
ratified, rogue governments and rebel groups might violate
international law and continue to abuse children in this way.
Affected children must be given care, otherwise future societies
will host traumatized adults unable to function and contribute.
UNICEF and others are doing much good work in this area. For
example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF is currently
running an experimental program that operates transit centers for
former child soldiers. In Liberia, UNICEF and USAID operate the
War-Affected Youth Support Project that involves demobilized youth
in rebuilding their communities as a form of retribution for their
actions during the war.
In Angola, the Christian Children's Fund has undertaken programs
to sensitize communities to facilitate the return of demobilized
child soldiers. Churches, local NGOs, village chiefs, and
traditional healers are involved in the USAID-supported Angola
project, stressing community-based reintegration. Activities focus
on reunification with families, returning to school, and acquiring
In Sierra Leone, where children became addicted to narcotics and
witnessed some of the worst atrocities known, rehabilitation of
child soldiers is desperately needed. Upon his return from a visit
to Sierra Leone, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian-born Nobel laureate,
pointed out the options for dealing with child ex-soldiers: either
to treat them as criminals or to reorient them to society.
Suggesting the latter, he asked of the World Bank/IMF annual meeting
participants, "But are African countries equipped to do this
The World Bank has carried out significant research on indigenous
healing of war-affected youth in Africa. Children who have survived
torture, sexual abuse, and separation from their families, and who
have witnessed death on a large scale, suffer symptoms similar to
the western label "post-traumatic stress disorder". These symptoms
include avoidance, insomnia, inability to concentrate, nightmares,
aggressive behavior, and confusion. The programs of UNICEF, Save the
Children, and others offer basic therapeutic techniques for
war-affected children. The World Bank research concludes that these
programs are more successful when integrated into locally based
techniques for recovery and reintegration.
Many local techniques focus on the role of ancestral spiritual
forces in healing affliction, and all involve the active
participation of family and community in the healing process.
Indigenous forms of mental health therapy, such as visiting a
traditional healer, may be as effective as western psychotherapy in
the case of war-affected children. According to the World Bank
study, purification rituals in Angola are used in order to rid the
ex-combatant of the contamination of war and death-- guilt, sin, and
avenging spirits-- so that he may be accepted back into the family
These "rites of transition" operate on a much more symbolic level
than modern psychotherapeutic practices, but the fact that they
originate from local African communities makes them culturally
acceptable and thus more sustainable. By integrating these
techniques into the interventions of foreign NGOs and donors, an
effective approach to the recovery of child ex-soldiers may be
From advocacy in the United States to enforcement of legislation
in Africa, there are several hurdles to overcome in the fight to
protect children from being recruited and deployed in the world's
conflicts. The transformation of this idea into a respected norm
over time is the only way to ultimately change the behavior of
governments and other groups involved in war. In the meantime,
African countries, with the assistance of external aid, are equipped
to try to reorient their war-affected children.
Kellie Anderson is a Senior Research Analyst at
the Africa Bureau Information Center, part of the Research and
Reference Services Project of USAID, operated by the Academy for
Educational Development. She has been a consultant at the World Bank
in the Institutional and Social Policy Sector, Africa Region, and at
the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES). Prior to
earning a Master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University School
of Advanced Studies (SAIS), she lived and worked for several years