Children not soldiers – the fight for equal opportunity continues

Former child soldiers sitting on bench in classroom

In his book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, Romeo Dallaire said, “Where you are born should not dictate your potential as a human being.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Plan International works across the globe doing community development work that enables children to reach their full potential. Boys and girls in developing nations face multiple barriers that prevent them from getting an education or accessing their rights. But child soldiers face a unique set of challenges and the impact of their experiences can be detrimental to their development and ability to thrive as adults.

According to the United Nations, the definition of child soldiers is as follows:

A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.

In conflict zones, children may be recruited, abducted or willingly join militia in order to escape poverty, defend their community or to seek revenge. The level of violence these children experience as witnesses, direct victims or as forced participants are unfathomable.

At its worst, civil unrest is robbing thousands of children of their lives, and the surviving children of their childhoods. For those who survive and are rescued, rehabilitation is not always easy or accessible. In the absence of programs, risk of re-recruitment is high because these children have no way of supporting themselves.

As it stands now, we’re failing the world’s children. Every child deserves to play, laugh, learn and be safe. Why don’t these “soldiers” deserve that? 110 countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and 150 countries have ratified the Worst Forms of Child Labor; both of which prohibit the existence of child soldiers. Many nations can agree that children should not be soldiers yet thousands of them die out on the battlefield.

The loss of their human potential is a loss for the world and we ought to put our politics and religions aside and focus on creating solutions. The world may call them soldiers but they are just children who deserve a fighting chance at a good life.

“If we don’t harness their potential for good, their societies will continue to reap their capacity for evil.” –Romeo Dallaire

The girl perspective

Although all child soldiers experience violence, boys and girls may have different lived experiences based on their gender. It is not widely known that girls make up 40 per cent of child soldiers worldwide and are used both in traditional combat and but also as porters, sex slaves, cooks and “rewards” for male soldiers. Girls often hide their association with militia and represent a very small percentage of children who are accessing reintegration programs. They suffer from an added layer of stigma and discrimination if their involvement in militia is found out. Entrenched gender norms dictate that girls ought to be pure and feminine in order to be suitable for marriage. As a girl soldier, assumptions are made about sexual activity and result in social isolation.

More work needs to be done in order to identify girl survivors, hear their stories, assess their needs and create programs that will allow them to heal.

Paving the path for a violence free future

“The only choice was between eating food near the decomposing body of a friend or an enemy or not eating and then starving to death,” says Kavula*, a former child soldier in South Sudan.

Former child soldier sitting in a classroom.

Kavula, former child soldier from South Sudan. His name has been changed for safety reasons.

Kavula is one of the many former child soldiers that Plan International has met through our rescue and rehabilitation programs.

It is estimated that 17,000 children have been recruited by armed groups in South Sudan. Kavula is one of thousands of children who are experiencing violence and trauma that no child ever should.

Plan International’s intervention varies based on the country in which we are implementing programs. Here are a few ways in which we support children who were formally soldiers:

  • Work in partnership with local NGO’s to help rescue child soldiers and provide them with vocational training to help them improve their income.
  • Fund teachers and providing learning materials so that children and adults who have missed out on schooling can take part in accelerated learning programs to help them catch up to their peers.
  • Facilitate several child rights clubs to teach children about their rights, how to protect themselves and where to go for help if they need it.

Rehabilitation is possible!

Former child soldier, Rosalie at a sewing machine.

Rosalie, former child soldier has taken part in sewing training and is now working as a tailor’s assistant.

“They have taken great care of me and my friends. It was a relief for me to be able to share my experience and anger without being judged,” said Rosalie, former child soldier in Central African Republic.

Plan International is committed to helping children and in the case of child soldiers, we will continue to put the pieces of their scattered lives together and help them thrive. The challenge to our world is preventing their unjust circumstances to begin with.