If you’ve been following our Facebook and Twitter platforms recently, you’ll have noticed that Childfund Ireland is committed to the ‘Free From Violence and Exploitation’ campaign. As such, today we’re discussing one of the most acute sources of both afflictions for children – the issue of child soldiers. A child soldier is defined as any child under 18 years of age who is part of an armed group in any capacity, including cooks, porters, messengers and sexual servants, not only children who have carried weapons (UNICEF Fact Sheet).
The subject of child soldiers has received some attention in the media recently, for instance in the Metro Herald’s April feature, ‘A battle for childhood’, focussing on Burma and last year’s award-winning Canadian film ‘Rebelle’, which documented the plight of a girl soldier in Congo. Ishmael Beah’s 2007 book ‘A Long Way Gone’ told the remarkable story of his own journey from child soldier in Sierra Leone to UN advocate in New York, while Invisible Children’s video, ‘Kony 2012’ focussed on Uganda, and called for US involvement to aid capture of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), estimated to have recruited up to 60,000 child soldiers over a 20 year period. This controversial viral sensation has been viewed almost 100 million times on YouTube.
The horrors child soldiers endure cannot be underestimated. While some are conscripted into state armies (18 national governments use child soldiers today), most are abducted from their homes by rebel militias. Children are attractive to commanders because they are easier to manipulate and control than adults; for example in central Africa, drugs are commonly used to intoxicate new recruits, during which time they are terrorized into committing atrocities such as rape or murder – sometimes against friends or family. After this experience, many feel they cannot ‘go back’ to their own communities or even normal society. Modern, automatic weapons, such as the infamous AK-47 assault rifle, have made it easier than ever to arm and train children, and their lack of a fully-developed sense of mortality makes them fearless fighters. Moreover, in the attritional, bloody nature of guerrilla warfare, children are often seen as expendable troops, and sent into combat to die while adult commanders stay back.
It is difficult to acquire accurate statistics on the numbers of child soldiers, as neither official nor rebel movements admit to their existence, but it is estimated that there may be as many as 300,000 child soldiers in conflict zones today. This has to stop, and many organisations are working to have underage soldiers removed from combat situations. However, whilst the issue of child soldiers has been illuminated, a closely related group remains in the shadows – those former child soldiers, returned home.
For many children, returning home is not the relief one might imagine. Many continue to endure problems from their time in combat – physical injuries from severe beatings and hard labour, and psychological disturbance such as severe nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations, extreme fear and aggression towards others. It is estimated that half of those who survivedt he conflict in Uganda had killed someone, while over a quarter had been raped during their time in the bush. As Stephen Lewis, former deputy director of UNICEF put it, “You cannot imagine children more abused, scarred, mutilated, traumatized and robbed of their childhood than those abducted by the LRA.”
These children also face distinct social challenges – girls (who number 4 in 10 of those abducted) experience stigmatization as a result of sexual abuse in captivity, and are regarded as ‘spoilt’. They may carry a child as a result of rape, who is rejected by the family. Boys are seen as ‘killers’ and as responsible for the havoc wreaked upon the community by the LRA, and for the deaths of those abductees who did not return.
In addition to their personal problems and social exclusion, former child soldiers’ lack of education and income-generating skills exacerbates the economic challenges of life in areas of persistent poverty. Some return home to find themselves having to fend for themselves, or even having to take responsibility for younger siblings without any means to provide for them. These collective challenges are in some cases so severe that children have returned to their captors or committed suicide after returning home.
Despite the desperate need for action to address this situation, the issue of long-term rebuilding of lives and communities after children return home has received far less coverage than that of active child soldiers. Ishmael Beah has declared that just as important as any short-term physical and psychosocial rehabilitation is to guarantee ongoing economic opportunities for former child soldiers, explaining that, “it’s a way to restructure people’s lives, to give them meaning to rekindle their own spirit, to know that there is something they can do with their lives, not just what they’ve been told.” And yet, a report by the Coalition To Stop The Use of Child Soldiers notes that there is no official reintegration programme in northern Uganda, and while NGOs established ‘reception centres’ to respond to the immediate needs of returning children, longer term support has been limited (Returning home – Children’s perspectives on reintegration).
ChildFund has been working with children and their communities in Northern Uganda for many years. During the conflict, ChildFund responded with programmes in some of the worst-affected districts of Pader, Gulu, Lira and Soroti, providing child protection and psychosocial support to thousands of children living in the camps. In the early years following the crisis, ChildFund focused on reintegrating former child soldiers with their families and communities, as well as promoting the protection and wellbeing of many other children affected by the war.
Now our work has shifted to helping hundreds of families rebuild their lives. The Uganda Community Recovery Programme will work with former child soldiers and their communities who were affected by the LRA conflict. The programme will re-establish agriculture, livestock and poultry production. Youth will be trained on catering, restaurant and hair salon management; masonry and carpentry and will be provided the tools needed to successfully establish these enterprises. The programme will also establish village savings and loan associations to give people access to low interest loans and give them the opportunity they need to make immediate improvements to their lives.
We’re working to help the real ‘invisible children’ of the LRA conflict rebuild and recover from their brutal past. With your support, we can ensure they have a life after Kony.