Stories like those of Matthew, Shaida, Wafa or Abdelkarim make their mark on the 21st century world every day; there are different pronouncements on how to protect them, free them, or reintegrate them into normal life, but no hint of a precise formula for stopping the warlords.
“They don’t send me on missions, they get me to wash clothes, collect things and keep watch. One day I was on guard duty and I saw a man. I shot at him and he put his arms up. I took him to the commander, who said that he was a thief and cut off the fingers on one of his hands,” Matthew recounts, from Nigeria, his child-like eyes peeping out from under his camouflage cap.
For Shaida, a young Cameroonian girl of barely 15, the worst was the morning she awoke to find herself naked, alongside her younger sister. At their insistence, a chief admitted they were drugged to avoid them being exhausted from “so much use”.
At present, a considerable number of children are being exploited as sex and domestic slaves, used as messengers, bodyguards, mine detectors, loaders, cooks, and even bomb makers. They are forced to get married, steal from local organisations, plant explosives or carry out suicide attacks.
Many of these minors were kidnapped. For others, poverty, insecurity, lack of education, personal or community injustice, societal pressure or desire for revenge pushed them to join armed groups. London-based Child Soldiers International recently reported that globally the recruitment of child soldiers rose by 159% between 2012 and 2017.
According to this non-governmental organisation, which is dedicated to preventing this phenomenon, in the first year 3,159 cases in 12 countries were recorded, compared with 8,185 in 17 countries in the last year. In the case of girls, in 2017 there were 893 cases recorded, four times more than the 216 girls recruited in 2012.
According to Child Soldiers International, because girls are mainly used for support work, they tend to remain outside official statistics and go unnoticed by protection structures.
Thus, it is suspected that the figure could be higher.
Ongoing fighting in the Middle East, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic, amongst other places, is “leaving children increasingly exposed to recruitment,” the organisation stated.
Since 1998, the 12th February has been recognised by the United Nations (UN) as the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known since 2002 as Red Hand Day, in reference to the symbol proposed to denounce this practice.
Beyond this day
Abdelkarim, an Afghan boy of 16 who endured five years of war, states that he saw terrible things: “a car bomb exploding opposite my old school, several relatives there on the ground. After these deaths I looked for a way to escape every day, until I managed to get to a transit centre.”
For UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, it is important to understand that reintegration is a process, which, if not done properly, can become a vicious circle in which children could be voluntarily re-recruited.
Gamba warns that “these children experience appalling levels of violence, which is likely to have dramatic physical and psychological consequences for the adults they will become. It is our responsibility to show these children that there is hope…, that they can live in peace and… live their dreams.”
In a recent statement on the topic, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that he is “more convinced than ever that the UN and its member states should continue to prioritise the protection of children affected by armed conflicts.”
The difficult situation they are in should be the primary reason to avoid starting conflicts and to bring these to an end, he remarked in 2018. Whilst on Red Hand Day this year, from the Vatican Pope Francis called for an end to this scourge, which he said affected nearly 240 million children in conflict zones.
According the United Nations Children’s Fund, around 300,000 child soldiers are participating in more than 30 wars around the world, including in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Chad, Uganda, Yemen, Benin, Niger and Myanmar.
In the face of such stories, statistics and statements, the moguls of the war industry must stop.
However, reality overwhelms them; they well know that their policies are only aggravating the problem, that they cause more disaster and more victims.
This complex phenomenon requires coordinated global action: development plans for the affected regions; the establishment of humanitarian corridors to allow for exit from theatres of operations; and help to create protective environments for children, amongst others. (PL)
(Translated by Rebecca Ndhlovu – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)