How Do Children End Up as Child Soldiers?

Some 300,000 children around the world have been swept up into a life of violence and used as instruments of war.

(Photo: Samir Bol/Getty Images)

Oct 15, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Ishmael Baeh was 11 when his country, Sierra Leone, fell into a brutal civil war. At 12, he was separated from his family and abducted by a government militia that trained him to kill and kill often—in the most inhumane ways possible. In his memoir, A Long Way Home, Baeh wrote that killing became “as easy as drinking water.” The savagery continued till UNICEF intervened and took Baeh and other child soldiers away from their commander, offering rehabilitation and a life free from guns.

Some 300,000 children around the world have been swept up into a life of violence, according to UNICEF. They are used as instruments of war; boys are trained in combat, and young girls are forced into marriage or sexually exploited.

In 2002, 159 countries signed an international treaty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the involvement of children under 18 in conflict. As a result, crimes pertaining to child soldiers can be tried in the International Criminal Court—as in the case of Dominic Ongwen, a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, who was abducted at 10 by the LRA and forced to fight.

The convention has been violated repeatedly. Child soldiers are being recruited to feed the needs of the Islamic State, Somali rebels, and Yemeni opposition forces, to name a few. UNICEF estimates that child soldiers are currently employed in 30 conflicts around the world.

Young boys and girls are lured by rebel groups for reasons that vary from region to region, says Eric Stover, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in human rights and international humanitarian law.

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Children are easy to manipulate, but other factors come into play as well. For instance, Stover points to the large number of orphans in parts of Africa; their status makes them “easy prey,” he says. According to UNICEF, in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 11 million children are 15 and orphaned because of a number of causes, including armed conflict, HIV/AIDs, and poverty.

Some rebel groups, such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, offer opportunity—food, shelter, and survival—to vulnerable youths, enticing them with incentives hard to get in fragile and unstable societies. It’s not just children, Stover says. “Parents see [their children becoming child soldiers] as a way to make money too.”

Another more recent factor, he says, is the rise in lightweight plastic weaponry. “It becomes much easier for a child to carry an AK-47 now that weapons are lighter.”

Zama Coursen-Neff, director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, says it’s not possible to make a “sweeping generalization.” While some children are lured in, Coursen-Neff has interviewed others who were forced to fight, such as those forced by the Tamil Tigers in the Sri Lankan civil war. In doing research on child soldiers, she has spoken to children as young as nine or 10 who were abducted from school in Somalia to join the militant group Al-Shabab.

Mercy Corps, an American aid group, recently conducted a study in which child soldiers in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Colombia were interviewed to determine what pushes them into these groups; the study, conducted from June to August 2014, concluded that these young girls and boys join rebel groups because they feel marginalized and hopeless. Moreover, economic hardship isn’t always a factor.

“The common belief that a lack of jobs pushes young people into conflict isn’t accurate,” says Karen Scriven, senior director of strategic programs at Mercy Corps. “Having a job has little or no impact. It’s actually because they feel mistreated by the government and experience injustices.”

Hence, the solution is more complex than just creating jobs, Scriven says. Jobs help, but they don’t address injustices and tensions between the government and youths.

In Somalia, Mercy Corps has attempted to reconcile the problem by running a program in which youth leaders can meet with officials from the Ministry of Education and policy makers. Given that young people didn’t have faith in the quality of education and the government saw the youths as troublemakers, it was essential to bring them together, Scriven says: “Both parties are needed to build trust.”

She refers to this as a bottom-up approach in which the local parties, not donors or international agencies, decide what’s best for them. In the Mercy Corps study, a regional governmental official in Somalia is quoted as saying, “Normally, when you go to the doctor, he’ll examine you before prescribing medication. Here, we prescribe the medication before ever bothering to look at the patient.”

Mercy Corps facilitated the conversations between youths and government in Somalia, which took up to six months. “Changing behaviors is a lengthy process,” says Scriven.

There’s one word Stover cringes at when it comes to helping child soldiers: closure.

“Trauma exists on a continuum,” he says. “Once you’re a child soldier, that’s going to stay with you forever. There’s no such thing as closure.”

But education plays a key role in helping child soldiers reacclimate to society. In 2005, Stover went to Uganda to research child soldiers who had been recruited by the Lord’s Resistance Army. During the Ugandan civil war, the United Nations estimated that minors accounted for 90 percent of the LRA’s soldiers, making it a “war fought on children by children.”

When the children came back, years later, they were taken to reception centers—safe grounds where they took part in group therapy, a concept pioneered by Harvard professor Judith Herman. “In group settings, they feel more comfortable because they have shared experiences,” Stover says.

At the centers, they also had access to art therapy, drawing, and visualizing workshops to help them cope with their experiences. “They go from drawing violences to images of family and communities,” he says.

However, some victims of war need special attention. In 2006, Stover met Alice Achan, a Ugandan woman who established the Pader Academy, a school for young women held captive during the war—and who emerge years later as single mothers, commonly referred to as “war brides.” These women are generally between eight and 12 when they are taken away; when they return, it’s too difficult for them to go to school, and they’re often stigmatized for being single mothers. Each woman is provided an academic education and vocational training, especially in the hospitality industry. While the mother is at school, so is her child. More than 500 women have been in educated in the last nine years.

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Theresa Betancourt, a professor of child health and human rights at Harvard, says the solutions should not be so black and white.

“Opportunities directed only to former child soldiers in a war-affected community can actually have the unintended consequences of fermenting resentment and stigma, as has been documented in northern Uganda and Sierra Leone,” she warns.

Her suggestion: Build projects that involve everyone in the community—not just the children who were armed in conflict—including other victims of violence.

Beyond education, economic sanctions and political actions can also help bring an end to the use of child soldiers, according to Coursen-Neff at Human Rights Watch. An annual “list of shame” is published by the United Nations, she says, citing the countries where child soldiers are being used. Nations like the U.S. are encouraged to stop supporting these governments and consider placing sanctions.

However, Coursen-Neff says the U.S. has not exercised this tool or its leverage. The administration continues to give military assistance to four nations on the list that recruit child soldiers: Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 2008, Congress passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which limited the U.S. government’s military support to governments that used children in armed forces. But the law doesn’t seem to carry much weight.

“We are really quite disappointed,” Coursen-Neff says.

This article was created in partnership with TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film Beasts of No Nation, produced in part by Participant Media and distributed by Netflix.