Weekly Defense Monitor| Volume 2, Issue No.
According to United Nations estimates, there are approximately
250,000 children under the age of 18 serving as soldiers in national
and guerilla armies around the world. Although the use of child
soldiers may be thought of as a problem of the developing world,
many industrialized countries have children under 18 in their
military services, including the United States, which has recruits
who are 17 years old and has a small number of this age in
Internationally, in the past 10 years, more than two million
children have been killed in armed conflicts. Perhaps as many as
three times that figure, almost six million children, have been
seriously injured or permanently disabled. Now, given the
introduction of lightweight weapons to regions of conflict and the
lack of an adult population because of years of continual warfare,
children are serving on the front lines to a greater and greater
But what happens to these children when a conflict has ended?
What mechanisms are in place to deal with the issues facing child
combatants? Sadly, the answer is not much. Children are often
forgotten as conflicts come to an end. These child soldiers are
often lumped together under the general term "ex-combatants. The
special needs that children have after being involved in extreme
situations of war are often ignored. Neil Boothby, a child
psychologist and Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children with the
United Nations, recognizes the problem that this deficiency
presents. "I think it’s safe to say unless we’re able to break the
cycle of violence, unless we’re able to focus on this teenage
population specifically, that if things go wrong in the economy, if
things go wrong in the political systems, it’ll be the teenager who
picks up the gun and starts the next cycle."
Sierra Leone is a country often highlighted in the child soldiers
discussion because of the continued use of child soldiers during 10
years of political violence and a full blown five-year civil war. In
Sierra Leone, a country with a population of 4.5 million and an
average life span of only 40, nearly half of the population are
children under 18 years of age. Currently there are approximately
3,000 child combatants. However, that number was as high as almost
6,000 during the peak of the fighting. Children who are killed or
who somehow manage to escape are replaced by a continual flow of new
Recently, a UN program was proposed to address the post-conflict
situation in Sierra Leone and manage the 33,000 ex-combatants left
in the country. The program has earmarked $34 million to disarm,
demobilize and reintegrate the ex-combatants. However, of the $34
million proposed, only $965,000 will go to rehabilitate and
reintegrate the child soldiers. In addition, in Sierra Leone today,
there is only one trained child psychologist to address the special
needs of these children.
Hopefully, UNICEF and other relief agencies working on the child
soldiers problem will be able to successfully help communities
understand that child soldiers are victims of conflict - not war
criminals - and give these children the special help they require.
For those affected by the conflict, who’ve seen their houses burned
down, their neighborhoods destroyed, their family members shot to
death by a twelve year old child, it's incredibly difficult to put
aside the anger and welcome that child back into the community.
For reintegration to work, and the wounds of society to heal,
there has to be forgiveness by both the community and the child.
According to Michael Wessells, a Professor of Psychology at
Randolph-Macon College, child soldiers are often scarred and
traumatized by their role during a conflict. "Oftentimes, there’s a
tremendous amount of guilt over what one has done. This is typically
accompanied by high levels of fear and anxiety over what will happen
to one. In addition, there are traumas and exposure to traumatic
experiences can produce flashbacks, sleep disturbances, withdrawal
and isolation behavior, and highly aggressive behavior in the form
of acting out. So, for these reasons, psycho-social assistance is
vital for helping our children make the transition back to civilian
Ending the practice of using child soldiers should be a priority
for policy makers around the world. Currently, the only
international standard against the use of child soldiers is the UN
Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets the age at 15 for
the recruitment, conscription, and participation in conflict.
However, the United States is one of only two countries in the world
(the other is Somalia) that has not yet signed this Convention.
Furthermore, UN Member States have drafted an Optional Protocol to
the Convention that would raise the age of recruitment,
conscription, and participation in conflict to 18. Because of its
current recruitment policy, the United States is blocking this
To help set a standard that will be applied around the world and
protect our own children from participating in conflict, the United
States must change its current policy and raise the age of military
recruitment to 18. Furthermore, the United States should support
international efforts to ban the use of child soldiers world-wide.
America's Defense Monitor Producer Stephen Sapienza and Research
Analyst Rachel Stohl.