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Child Combatants: The Road to Recovery

Weekly Defense Monitor| Volume 2, Issue No. 36

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 combat-ready units.

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 extent.

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 recruits.

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 life."

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 measure's progress.

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.

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