A UNICEF estimate says about 2.50 lakhs children have been recruited as soldiers in various capacities worldwide. In India no such studies have been done to document the life of these child soldiers. The main reasons the children take to guns being extreme poverty and they see rebels leading well-off lives. To them joining the rebels seems like an opportunity to get out of their misery. When the child soldier learns the tricks of the trade and starts getting money, the parents also enjoy a better life style. While the government doesn’t give enough support and compensation for victims, rebel groups step in to act as guardians.
Whats worse is that in most countries, including India, there is no government mandate on what should be done of these children, once they are found during raids or encounters. Can their childhood be returned? NO!
In over twenty countries around the world, children are direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts. These young combatants participate in all aspects of contemporary warfare. They wield AK-47s and M-16s on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, carry supplies, and act as spies, messengers or lookouts.
Now, let us look at some facts about Child Soldiers:
- Although there are no exact figures, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 18 serve in government forces or armed rebel groups. Some are as young as eight years old.
- Since 2001, the participation of child soldiers has been reported in 21 on-going or recent armed conflicts in almost every region of the world.
- Children are uniquely vulnerable to military recruitment because of their emotional and physical immaturity. They are easily manipulated and can be drawn into violence that they are too young to resist or understand.
- Technological advances in weaponry and the proliferation of small arms have contributed to the increased use of child soldiers. Lightweight automatic weapons are simple to operate, often easily accessible, and can be used by children as easily as adults. Children are most likely to become child soldiers if they are poor, separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in a combat zone or have limited access to education.
- Many children join armed groups because of economic or social pressure, or because children believe that the group will offer food or security. Others are forcibly recruited, “press-ganged” or abducted by armed groups.
- Both girls and boys are used as child soldiers. In some countries, like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Uganda, a third or more of the child soldiers were reported to be girls. In some conflicts, girls may be raped, or given to military commanders as “wives.”
- Once recruited, child soldiers may serve as porters or cooks, guards, messengers or spies. Many are pressed into combat, where they may be forced to the front lines or sent into minefields ahead of older troops. Some children have been used for suicide missions.
- Children are sometimes forced to commit atrocities against their own family or neighbors. Such practices help ensure that the child is “stigmatized” and unable to return to his or her home community.
- In some countries, former child soldiers have access to rehabilitation programs to help them locate their families, get back into school, receive vocational training, and re-enter civilian life. However, many children have no access to such programs. They may have no way to support themselves and are at risk of re-recruitment
- In 2000, the United Nations adopted an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The protocol prohibits the forced recruitment of children under the age of 18 or their use in hostilities. To date, it has been ratified by more than 110 countries.
- The ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor prohibits the forced or compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 18 for use in armed conflict. It has been ratified by over 150 countries.
Incidentally, Burma has the highest number of child soldiers. Excerpts from some such children who were “recruited” in the Army…
I left KGA [kindergarten] when I was six because of the problem with our family’s livelihood. We were farmers. My parents couldn’t pay for me to go to school. It cost 1,000 or 2,000 per year just for school fees. I left school and sold ice cream in the town, at the railway station and bus stops and places like that. [I did that] for about three years. Then I worked at a restaurant. At first I was a waiter, then I was a knife holder [cutting up the vegetables]. That was for two years. After I left the restaurant I worked as a construction worker for about three years. Then I worked as a trishaw driver for about eight months. My family had money problems so I had to sell my trishaw. Then I went to Rangoon to get a better job, but I didn’t get one. I was taken by the army. I was going around looking for a job, and it happened when I was waiting for a train at the railway station in Rangoon. I was sixteen. -former Burma army soldier, recruited in 1998
I didn’t want to join. I wanted to go to school and study, and my parents didn’t know where I was. If I joined the army life would change for me. When I was with my parents I never knew about smoking, drinking, gambling. . . . now I know all of these things. I told them I didn’t want to join. They said, “You can’t do anything about it, you’re with us now.” I told them I was twelve years old. They said, “Never mind your age, we can keep you in the camp until you’re old enough.” I told them I was a student. We wanted to run away but it wasn’t easy. We talked about it three or four times. Three ran away, but one was caught. He had to dive face down on the ground, then every Ye Nyunt boy had to beat him one time. Some had pity on him and didn’t hit him very hard, so the supervisor said “I’ll show you how” and hit him once, and then said, “Go and hit him once like that.” Most of the hits were on his legs, with a bamboo about this big [two inches in diameter]. The boy was about sixteen. After the beating he was in bad shape, he was crying and couldn’t stand up. He wasn’t bleeding, but he was swollen and his skin was bruised gray and brown. He was sent to the clinic for three or four days before coming back. After the clinic he still had bruises on his legs. -Myo Chit, seized by the army at age twelve in 1998
What is most worrisome is the kind of psychological impact these things as killing, raping, harrassing civilians has on the vulnerable minds of these youngsters! Sometimes they know that what they are doing is bad, but they still enjoy doing it… So much so that one child said
Though he may have foreseen that life as a soldier would drag down his character, he certainly did not realize that after three months of Ye Nyunt training, five months of military training, and a year in the army, he would be beating villagers with rifle butts and threatening to shoot them as he tried to force them onto a truck to take them as porters for the army. But by his own testimony, this is what he was doing. “At night we went into town and captured them everywhere, or we took a truck to a village and captured them. Sometimes they refused so we beat them. I didn’t beat them with my fists, I used my rifle butt. I hit a man twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old one time. I felt unhappy about it, but I had my commander’s order. We were ordered to get as many as we could. We could get fifty or sixty a night.” When Myo Chit was reliving this he was particularly animated and excited, and he admitted that he felt proud when his unit returned to camp with a particularly large number of porters. Only when directly asked how he felt about treating villagers this way did he express any remorse. In May 2001 he fled the army, but later joined an opposition army because “I like fighting.” Now fifteen years old, he clearly has yet to fully confront or resolve the conflict in his own mind about what he did as a Burma army soldier.
Childhood innocence is probably one of the most cherished things in our lives. And these children do not even know what innocence means or feels like. Sometimes they are forced to hold guns as tall as themselves!! However, we can do our bit to save some children from this gruesome crime. You can support the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007 here. Please also visit Coalition to stop use of child soldiers.