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Institutionalized Child Abuse: The Use Of Child Soldiers

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By Mahalakshmi Ganapathy:

“At 2 pm, they gouge out two eyes, at 3 pm they cut-off one hand, at 4pm they cut off two hands, at 5pm, they cut off one foot and… at 7pm it is the death which falls down”.

One would experience chills running down the spine whilst reading these lines above, and these are not sentences taken out of fiction, but a real life account of a child soldier narrating the way in which they carry the execution off.

Enlistment and exploitation of child soldiers by successive Governments and militias is a grave problem which plagues the African region. The use of children as soldiers has been universally condemned as abhorrent and unacceptable. Yet over the last ten years, hundreds of thousands of children have fought and died in conflicts here. This is a very serious issue and needs to be addressed by the states because here we are talking about the future of our nation, the children and their lives being put at stake and being used as pawns in the hands of politicians and the militias alike.

There are six dimensions that interact together to facilitate this institutionalization of child soldier abuse. They are the macro-level contributing factors like politics, policies and culture/beliefs and the micro-level factors like family, community and psychosocial factors.

When we look at the politics and the political will in these countries, we find that Government militias and opposing armed forces are generally responsible for recruiting the majority of child soldiers in order to further their political agendas. An example is presented in the form of the politics in Liberia. When Samuel K Doe in 1980 briefly overthrew the government, followed by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor taking power, he unleashed inter-tribal conflicts that escalated to civil war. As the number of adult men declined, children were recruited, thus making child soldering the norm. The political agendas of tyrants deeply institutionalized child soldering.

The absence of policies, poor enforcement and misguided policy application further contribute to child soldier abuse. Even though the prescribed age for voluntary recruitment, as decided by overwhelmingly majority of African States is 18 years, this norm has been blatantly violated.

The culture and beliefs of the larger society often influence child soldiering. To quote an example of how this works, in Liberia, early tribal armies used children as war mascots joining the armed forces often became the initiation into adulthood. The military training offered a means for upward mobility in the social ladder and at times provided the justification for rape and harassment of the natives.

The micro-level factors like the community also play a larger role in exerting influence on the practice of child soldering. Children in poverty — stricken communities are especially vulnerable to child soldier abuse. Community protection or resistance against child soldiering may be lacking for the fear of attacks by the violent armed forces recruiting from the community. Communities also fear ex-soldiers due to the acts of violence committed by them, the children are abducted on their way to the school or are just rounded off form the villages. Also the spoils of war (the looted goods, wives, drugs) turn the youth to rebel against the traditional leadership and the community.

Families can contribute to child soldering due to poverty or religious beliefs. Children are often abducted and forced into association with armed groups, but sometimes they appear to join willingly. Poverty, illiteracy and discrimination, as well as a lack of formal education and livelihood opportunities, are some of the drivers of “voluntary” recruitment. Many families benefited when their sons became big men in the military, their status prevented from looting these households. Daughters who kept relationships with commanders also provided similar protection. Many children also take up weapons so as to avenge the death of family members and thus gets entangled in this ugly war in which the child is brainwashed and exploited.

Perhaps the most important cause that leads to child soldiering is the psycho-social factors. Their minds are so impressionable that they can be manipulated and brainwashed very easily. During the adolescent and growing up age, there is this young blood which is willing to identify with social, religious or nationalistic issues. There is frustration, unemployment, poverty, absolutely low standard of living, which further acts as an incentive to join these forces.

The abuse and it’s effects:

The human rights violations that have taken place in this region are inescapable to the world and there have been blatant wreckage of rules. Under the UNCRC, children by definition, belong to a class of individuals who need special care and assistance. Under the CRC, they have the rights not to be recruited into armed forces until the age of 15 and not to be used in direct combat under the age of 15. Under the Optional Protocol, children are not to be compulsorily recruited until the age of 18. Despite these stated rights, many children have been involved in direct combat and other tasks related to fighting such a transporting supplies and weapons, serving as spies and messengers, to clear landmines.

Girls too are used as soldiers, though in a much smaller number than boys, but the exploitation they face is of an insurmountable nature. The rape and sexual exploitation of children and wartime women is increasingly a characteristic of conflict. In some instances sexual violence has been used as a premeditated tactic of war designed to humiliate or exterminate a population or to force displacement.

For children especially, the physical and mental consequences are devastating. Such violations may also take the form of sexual slavery, forced prostitution and marriage or sexual mutilation. The long-term health consequences for the victims include sexually transmitted infection such as HIV/AIDS, fistula, early pregnancy and debilitating psychological trauma.

Education is another area that is severely compromised while the children are off to war. After prolonged absence from school, it becomes very difficult for former child soldiers to attend an institutional setup as they are more prone to violence than academic study. They are mentally so bruised that going back to normal life and behaving like a normal teenager becomes very difficult. In addition, the schools in conflict zones face many obstacles, including staff crunch, poor infrastructure, lack of textbooks etc.

The children also suffer psychological and social damage. Their childhood is lost, they face an identity crisis of whether to be his/her age or to behave like a grown up, the way they were during the conflict. The children are also separated from their families, the family bonding is lost, they are denied the appropriate cultural norms, social values and support form home. These children are very susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with symptoms which include nightmares, illusions, panic attacks. These children are so used to the intake of drugs and alcohol that it brings in a dependency and they are not able to shake it off even after coming out of the war.

Areas of intervention:

Article 39 of the CRC ,which requires governments to provide rehabilitation services to former child soldiers must be adhered to .The DDR norms of rehabilitation of the children must be one in such a manner that they would not fall into the trap of war again. Even though the lost childhood is a matter of great concern, the children must now at least be given such a conducive environment so as to grow into mature adults, counselling the children and understanding their trauma is very important. Programmes utilizing sports can be used to help children learn to have fun and socialize with others while participating in normal childhood activities and to have healthy non-violent competition.

Rehabilitation of child soldiers is being jointly done by civil society and the international organisations. While reunification with their families is the primary goal for most child soldiers, it is not possible for all. Some children may be orphaned or abandoned because of the war. Children disabled due to conflict may be rejected by their families. Girls who have been severely abused or have become mothers while in the armed forces may be disowned. Appropriate efforts and measures must be taken so as to rehabilitate them with their families or provide for suitable placement elsewhere.


1)The use of child soldiers by Carrie E Kimmel and Jini L.Roby : ISW article on Institutionalised child abuse.

2)Coalition to stop the use of Child Soldiers ,

3)Human Rights Watch ,

4)UNICEF-Convention on the the Rights of the Child

5)The use of children as soldiers in Africa-A country analysis of child recruitment and participation in armed conflict ,

Office of the special representative of the Secretary —General for Children and Armed Conflict , conflict/root causes of child soldiering.htm

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