As a Briton, I have fortunately seen very little of war, but millions of children throughout the world are not so lucky. What’s even worse is that whilst most child casualties of war are civilians, a growing number are child soldiers. 25 countries worldwide recruit children under the age of 16, sometimes at their will, sometimes forced.
Let’s consider some of the reasons children are used as soldiers (Source: UNICEF)
- The development of light weaponry which is easy for children to handle. (Since the Soviet AK-47 is so widely and cheaply produced ($6), arming children with them is of little financial consequence).
- Human shields. Many war leaders view the child’s life as inferior to that of the trained adult soldier, thus use them as a first line of defence (eg children sent first over minefields during Iran-Iraq war 1980).
- Poverty. Some children join war clans as a means of guaranteeing daily food, or live in such horrific, mundane conditions that warfare doesn’t seem like a bad way of life.
- Some children, of course, want to fight for social change, in retaliation for family deaths, or for patriotism in a coup d’état.
Whilst the harrowing effects of war are difficult to comprehend even for fully trained soldiers, the lasting effects for children hinder both self development and the development of a nation.
- The lack of infrastructure (ie schools, social structure), means that for some children, war is the only option and may become the norm. The devastation and lack of social order that war then brings, contributes to the poverty-conflict cycle in which violence and crime are extremely common (eg Honduras & El Salvador).
- A 1995 survey in Angola found that 7% of children had fired a gun at somebody. We need not look further than our own servicemen and police to know the psychological effects (shell shock – World War 1) that using a gun to shoot somebody can have. Add to this the underdeveloped mind of a child, and it is evident that warfare can have severe lasting effects on a child’s development into adulthood.
- The sexual exploitation of girls during times of war can have severe lasting effects. Their use as ‘sex slaves’ or wives to male fighters can leave them pregnant before their bodies are developed, and genital mutilation is not uncommon. With the devastation that war brings, the issue of women’s rights is always overlooked.
- Ultimately, it is proven that use of child soldiers in warfare can prevent them from forging healthy relationships with adults and their peers. Whilst this can be very damaging on a personal level, this in addition to the economic and physical effects of war leaves the nation with massive social instability for the foreseeable future. (SOURCE: WarChild)
What can WE do to protect children?
- We must firstly recognise that we cannot simply target governments to demand change. Modern warfare is often based on governmental breakdown/Coup d’état (eg Mali), and this makes influencing change through governmental pressure hard.
- Raise awareness of the use of children in armed conflict, and encourage a formal condemnation worldwide.
- It is often NGO’s (eg Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab) which recruit child soldiers, so discouraging their support/funding will help.
Charlotte Hannah, 31st May 2013