Children in the military fill one of three roles: as a soldier, as a support, or for political advantage. Throughout the course of history military conflict has enlisted children in one of these capacities. In the earlier periods children were used mostly in the support role as squires, messengers, spies or drummers. In modern day warfare, children are increasingly used as combatants. Countries differ in their policies regarding the use of kids in the military.
Why Do Children Become “Child Soldiers”?
Children are easily exploited, especially in war zones. They are more easily manipulated and coerced into performing acts than are adults. In some countries forced recruitment is common; in others young people are brought into service by adduction. Some forces maintain control over the children by forcing them to kill their families or neighbors, removing any link to community or a sense of “home.”
In particular the force in Uganda known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is brutal and cruel in their tactics to acquire and maintain a fighting unit of children. They use isolation, physical beatings and intimidation to keep the children obedient to their commanders. Eventually, they often play a part in the abduction of other children.
In other countries kids seek armed groups as a way to survive. They may be escaping an abusive family, poverty, homelessness, or forced marriages. Orphans look to the armed group as a means to obtain food and shelter. Some kids join so they can earn money to send to their families. Still others join as a way to seek revenge.
Many groups use propaganda as a way to attract youth to their cause. Power and glamour can be alluring and there is also the ideological factor of a cause. Oppressed people construct ideals that justify their use of violence to achieve goals and indoctrinate youth. Children who are easily manipulated; but also teenagers who are searching for meaning in their lives are easy prey for these groups. Youngsters with less accessibility to education also tend to be easier prey for recruitment.
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According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands (though the exact figure is elusive) of kids, some as young as eight years old, are serving in the military. According to the Global Report of Child Soldiers 2008, there are nine countries that use kids in armed conflict; although 14 governments recruited and used them in auxiliary roles. The majority of child soldiers are recruited into non-state armed groups; which involves at least 24 countries with dozens of armed groups. Weapons have advanced technologically to the point that lightweight weapons are simple to operate and can be used easily by children.
In some countries such as Uganda, it is reported that at least one-third of the young combatants are girls. Girl soldiers may be used as combatants, but they also are thrust into roles as sex slaves or “wives” for commanders. Many youths are used for suicide missions or as front runners into minefields ahead of the older troops.
Programs to assist in reintegrating the minors back into communities have been limited in most cases. There are disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs that help; however, most children don’t register for these programs or in some cases, they aren’t eligible. Girls are even less represented. According to the Global Report, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) only 15 percent of the girls estimated to be involved in the conflict went through the official DDR program.
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There is Hope for Child Soldiers
The good news is 120 countries ratified an Optional Protocol to address children in the military. This protocol was adopted by the United Nations in 2000 and prohibits the forced recruitment of children under the age of 18 or to use them in hostilities. Though 63 countries permit the voluntary enlistment of under-18 individuals; conscription is set at 18 years of age. In the United States a 17 year old can volunteer to enlist in the military service; however, the 17 year old cannot be deployed overseas or into combat. Conscription (draft) age is 18 years in the U.S.
Several organizations have rallied around the issue of stopping the use of children in warfare. One such organization, War Child International provides links and information for those who wish to know more or help bring hope to children in the war zones.
The copyright of the article The Use of Child Soldiers is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.