Child Soldiers in War

Photo Source: Development Research Institute

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront


Hearing about the trend of recruiting child soldiers for war, in and around us, is not unusual. 

Infact, scholars such as Vera Achvarina and Simon Reich ascertain that since 1975, Africa has had largest concentration of conflicts and child soldiers. Mark Drumbl further states that about forty percent of child soldiers in the world are present in Africa.

Child soldiers mostly thrive in low intensity conflicts, where wars do not end through victory or negotiated settlement, according to research pursued by Paul Collier. 

The other reason was that the cold war left some armed forces or groups without financial support – before they had been supported by either the United States or the Soviet Union in fighting proxy wars. The end result was that the rebel groups started abducting cheap child soldiers.

Romeo Dallaire, who encountered child soldiers in the Rwandan genocide, believes that most population in the conflict zones, in Africa, is less than eighteen years old. That’s has been one of the reasons to employ child soldiers, since they are ‘cheap to maintain, expendable, and replaceable’. According to him, since younger children lack a sense of fear, they can easily be preferred over adults in performing dangerous tasks. Furthermore, child soldiers can be easily controlled and influenced, since they are dependent on guidance and protection.

Child soldiers are also able to take part in combat, due to widespread and global proliferation of small arms, mainly AK-47 assault rifles. Technological advancements in small arms now make them as dangerous as adult soldiers. Approximately more than seventy million AK-47 rifles have been produced globally since 1947, and this weapon can be easily carried and used to deadly effect by children as young as ten. Although, research has it that child soldiers can also participate in conflicts without technologically advanced weapons. Such was the case in Rwanda, where child soldiers often used panga, which is a machete, or a masu, a club studded with nails.

Abduction is the most common method through which the recruitment takes place. They become child soldiers either being born into forces or groups, or they are abducted, or conscripted through coercion or severe threats. Uganda’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA) is commonly known for abducting children from their homes. According to the 2008 Global Report on Child Soldiers by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the LRA has abducted about twenty five thousand children since the 1980s.

The practice of abducting children also holds true for Sierra Leone, where real life witnesses have provided testimonies. In Sierra Leone, it must not be forgotten that all sides had recruited children, including Civil Defense Forces (CDF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), Sierra Leone army, besides the rebel group RUF.

There are also instances when children are not forcibly recruited. Therefore, the factors that make them motivate to join war in a conflict zone include past grievances, repression and discrimination, as well as lack of education, poverty, lack of employment, abuse at home, or having no community or home. They suddenly see a security in fighting forces, where there is provision of food, a sense of belonging, ideology or group identity, as well as economic reasons for gaining profits. A study on the recruitment of child soldiers in Colombia into Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) cited the above reasons as main push factors.

Furthermore, according to various conflict researchers, children are often promised some payoff when joining armed forces and groups. They can be divided into pecuniary and non-pecuniary rewards, with pecuniary rewards mostly consisting of “wages, one-shot monetary rewards, often associated with plunder, and other tangible rewards such as drugs and alcohol”. Non-pecuniary rewards could include the achievement of rank, social bonding with comrades and commanders, and maintaining a group identity.

In Afghanistan, insurgent groups, including the Taliban, and other armed groups, use children as fighters, including in suicide attacks. The UN has also reported recruitment of children by the Afghan National Police. In Burma, thousands of boys serve in Burma’s national army, with children as young as eleven forcibly recruited off the streets and sent into combat operations. In Central Asian Republic, around six thousand to ten thousand children, some as young as twelve, serve with several rebel groups. The Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted children in the southeast of the country. In Chad, thousands of children have served in both government and rebel forces. In 2011, the government signed an action plan to end its use of child soldiers and recruitment has decreased sharply. In Colombia, besides thousands of children – both boys and girls -  who served in the FARC guerrillas, there are smaller numbers in UC-ELN guerrillas as well. Children are also recruited into successor groups to paramilitaries. In DRC, children serve in the government forces as well as various rebel forces. At the height of DRC’s war, more than thirty thousand boys and girls were fighting with various parties in the conflict. Most have now been released or mobilised. The Lord’s Resistance Army also abducts children in northeastern Congo. It uses both boys and girls as fighters, and girls as sex slaves. In India, Maoist ‘Naxalite’ rebels in Chhattisgarh use children as soldiers. The Maoists induct children as young as six into children’s associations, and use children as young as twelve in armed squads that receive weapons training, and may participate in armed encounters. 

In Iraq, Al-Qaeda recruits’ children to spy, scout, transport military supplies, plant explosive devices, and actively participate in attacks against security forces. In Philippines, children are recruited by rebel forces including the New People’s Army, Abu Sayyaf Group, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In Somalia, the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab forcibly recruits children as young as ten, often abducting them from their homes or schools. Some are coerced into becoming suicide bombers. Children also serve in Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces. 

In South Sudan, the national government has enacted a law and pledged to end its use of child soldiers, but continues to recruit children and has not yet demobilised all children from its forces. The number of child soldiers in South Sudan has been steadily increasing since war began in 2013, to around sixteen thousand, according to UNICEF, which seeks $4.2 million to support ex-child soldiers in South Sudan. In Sudan, over a dozen armed forces and groups use child soldiers, including the Sudanese Armed Forces, pro-government militias, and factions of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army. In Thailand, separatist insurgents called Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Freedom Fighters) have recruited hundreds of ethnic Malay Muslim children as messengers, couriers, scouts, and in some cases, combatants, in the insurgency in Thailand’s southern border provinces. The National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (BRN-C) has systematically recruited children, and used them to support armed attacks. And in Yemen, government forces have recruited children as young as fourteen. Prior to the Arab Spring, the government used children in its armed forces to fight Houthi rebels in the north, who also used children. In 2011, rebel forces in Taiz deployed children to patrol roads, and operate checkpoints. Some had previously served with government forces before defecting. Saudi Arabia has been accused of paying upto $10,000 to Sudanese militiamen including child soldiers, to fight the war in Yemen.

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