In 1944, Adolf Hitler, in a last ditch effort to save his crumbling Third Reich formed the Volkssturm (The People’s Army), for which able bodied men from ages 16 to 60 were conscripted. At first, many of young people were used to dig trenches, cook and serve food, or serve as porters however as the war escalated, the youth were made to take on more combat-related roles as spies, saboteurs. Some were sent to Waffen SS units, and after only a few weeks of training were sent to fight on the frontline.
Though stories like these seem like they are far in the past, the practice of using child soldiers continues today. Recently, FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, began to wind down its long war with the Colombian government and started to release many of their child soldiers from service. There are many additional places where the use of child soldiers continues with many being forced to take part in atrocities that are sure to scar them physically and psychologically.
While the use of child soldiers in not exclusively an African problem, UNICEF estimates that the largest concentration exists on the African continent. It is estimated that 40% of child soldiers are active on the African continent alone. And although the reasons by which children find themselves embroiled into either government or local armed forces may vary according to the region and conflict, war affects all aspects of the children’s development.
Although the recruitment of child soldiers is a lot more complex that it initially appears, most recruitment occurs through abduction. Although many children who become soldiers are described as taking up arms “voluntarily,” the term itself is very often at best a bizarre misnomer, and at worst a complete and cruel contradiction.
When recruiters of child soldiers in Africa look to “voluntarily” conscript children into their armed forces, they prey upon many of the same susceptibilities. Children are deliberately targeted as they can be manipulated more easily than adults and indoctrinated to perform crimes and atrocities without asking questions.
From 2004-2006, an estimated 30,000 child soldiers were used in the ongoing civil conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Countries including Uganda and Sierra Leone have also been major offenders. The Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army has reportedly abducted or recruited as many as 25,000 child soldiers since 1980, and in 1998, it was estimated that as much as 25% of the fighting forces in Sierra Leone were under the age of 18. Terrorist organizations in Africa have also engaged in the use of child soldiers. Al Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram have utilized children as spies, saboteurs, and in some cases have trained them to be suicide bombers.
The numbers worldwide regarding the use of child soldiers are staggering. The United Nations estimates that in the last ten years 2 million children have been killed, and 1 million have been orphaned as the result of conflicts. In addition, an estimated 6 million have been injured or permanently disabled, and at least 10 million have undergone serious psychological trauma.
In South Sudan, approximately 18,000 children were used as soldiers in the battle for independence from Sudan, and the civil wars that followed. In fact South Sudan is viewed as one of the most egregious of the current violators of the 1949 Geneva Convention which barred the use of children under the age of 15 in warfare, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which first recognized a child as anyone under the age of 18, and the OPAC agreement of 2000 that prevents the conscription of individuals under the age of 18.
Civil wars and promises of revenge for the killing and the displacement of families, becomes a ready recruitment and indoctrination tool, which finds children engaging in conflicts out of some suggested form of national, tribal, or family duty they must perform. This is likely why recruiters often troll refugee camps for child soldiers.
A deeper analysis into the use of child soldiers by both government and local militias, and terrorist organizations finds that poverty, lack of job opportunities, and economic strife are major contributors to children being either abducted or recruited to engage in acts of warfare, but these are not the only factors. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, child soldiers were recruited or abducted because of the aforementioned factors, but added to this was the fact that at least 50% of the population of Rwanda during this period was under the age of 18. A lack of possible adult combatants played a key role. Lack of funding for warfare leads to many government and regional forces utilizing more child soldiers because they were cheaper and easier to maintain.
Children who are released from service have a difficult time coping with the physical and psychological trauma they are subjected to therefore Reintegration is the toughest part of demobilisation. It may be easy to release a child soldier from service, but what do they do then? Many of these children are orphaned because of civil and regional warfare, and may end up remaining with their units because they rely on them for food, shelter, and medical care.
UNICEF and other organizations like Child Soldiers International have sponsored or advocated for services for children who have been released or who escape from military service. Between 2015 and 2016, UNICEF has been negotiated the release of 1,900 child soldiers, but the task to get forces in Africa to comply with UN resolutions is daunting, since many of these forces cover-up or deny their use of child soldiers. And often, even when a local, regional, or government force admits to using child soldiers, it can take years to get these children out. While the efforts of UNICEF and other international organizations are providing some ray of hope, without further effort, punishment for offenders, and services in place for those children that are released, the use of child soldiers in Africa and in other parts of the world will likely last far longer than we would all want it to.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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