More than 300,000 children worldwide are recruited and become victims of armed conflict. Their innocence means that they are easy to manipulate and control. They are treated as soldiers, spies, ammunition porters or as sexual objects.
“The girls were also raped by Al Shabab. One of my family members was sexually assaulted. It’s quite common”. She is only 13 years old but she has already witnessed things she will never be able to forget.
This girl, who wishes to remain anonymous, lives in Somalia and has seen with her own eyes how the militia has carried out horrific acts against her family.
For another boy from Mali, war has also formed an important part of his life but his body was not used as a sexual object by soldiers, instead, at his young age, he became one of them.
“After being given injections and eating rice mixed with a red powder, I became a machine, I could do anything my commanders asked of me. The only thought in my head was to shoot our enemies”, explains the 16 year old.
These are only two testimonies. Just two out of the thousands of children who live first-hand the horrors of war. Amnesty International has compiled numerous stories of boys and girls who have been forced to recruit with guerrillas or who have been directly or indirectly affected by war.
These innocent citizens are used as soldiers, prostitutes or spies working for adults who have no respect for the notion of childhood.
Recently and coinciding with the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, several organisations have reported the recruitment of children in 17 countries worldwide.
The latest figures from UNICEF estimate that there are currently around 300, 000 child soldiers, 100, 000 of whom are found in Africa. In Colombia internal conflict leaves around 14, 000 children with blood on their hands.
Studies show that within these figures, 60% of the children are boys and 40% are girls and also warns that, after the age of seven, these children become a target for paramilitaries and guerrillas.
Boys are used as soldiers, bodyguards for group leaders, weapons carriers or simply as cooks. Girls, on the other hand, are forced to sell their bodies for the sexual gratification of adults.
A tragic story lies hidden behind the face of each of these young soldiers. Many were abducted whilst playing in the street or at school, putting down their books and picking up weapons in their place.
There is a long list of countries involved. Among others, Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq are areas where many children have left their toys behind and replaced them with weapons and uniforms.
The militia sees the children as easily manipulated and vulnerable. According to Amnesty International, they are captured because they are “less demanding, easily replaceable and join the group with great enthusiasm”. Many of them are drugged with the aim of making them more aggressive and leaving them with no regard for the enemy they must take down.
This dream is supported by measures which have already been put into action. The justice system has taken historical and exemplary measures such as sentencing former Congolese military leader and warlord, Thomas Lubanga, to 14 years in prison.
For Radhika Coomaraswamy, United Nations’ Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict spokesperson, this decision is promising though this UN member did criticise the major powers in their passive attitude towards bringing an end to this matter. “The international community has ignored this problem for the last 20 years”, stated Coomaraswamy.
Furthermore, it has been confirmed that many of the countries that suffer this phenomenon internally, such as Myanmar, have begun negotiations and are implementing programmes which will put an end to this social curse.
Colombia is one of the countries with the largest number of children involved in armed conflict. This South American country, where various guerrilla and paramilitary groups are inciting escalating levels of violence, boasts a figure of 14, 000 children involved in the war.
Institutions such as the International Tribunal for Children Affected by War and Poverty have publically expressed their fears over the damage that this violence causes to children and adolescents in this area.
Studies have been repeatedly and periodically carried out on this matter by various organisations. Armed groups are accused of violating children’s rights and it is estimated that guerrillas have brought about the death of some 3,000 children.
Among other experiences, which are in no way any less important, it is estimated that, in their short lifetime, 18% of these young soldiers have killed another human being, 13% have participated in kidnappings and 60% have been direct witnesses to a murder.
Poverty as a deciding factor
Many institutions link the high number of youths involved in illegal armies with the conditions of their country. According to studies carried out by UNICEF and ECLAC in 2011, Colombia is the 11th country with the greatest level of inequality, with 38% of young people living in poverty, a figure which translates into six million children, and 15.6% living in extreme poverty.
UNICEF Colombia representative, Paul Martin, believes that many victims voluntarily offer themselves for service due to their socio-economic situation; “they want the protection of these groups who offer them a home, a uniform and the respect that they do not receive in their own homes”.
One of the cases which has most interested the media and public opinion is the accusation that has been presented in the report entitled The two Congos at war, which was carried out by an NGO whose headquarters are based in London.
The study indicates that the National Army of Colombia is allegedly using under 18 year olds as spies against other paramilitary groups, as is already the case in the National Liberation Army (ELN) and in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), armed groups where boys and girls have been identified amongst their army lines.
Not guilty, just victims
The presence of children in armed conflict has been recorded since 2005 and for this reason, organisations such as Amnesty International or Save the Children, among others, support the implementation of international measures in order to put a stop to this reality and increase the protection of children who are at risk of being used in conflict.
Furthermore, they ask that programmes designed to assist victims who are forced to commit acts that they would never willingly carry out, be promoted on a global level.
(Translated by Rebecca Hayhurst)