The explanation behind this trafficking which endangers future generations is that “children are cheap, easily replaced, more easily persuaded to commit criminal acts without fear and to obey blindly”. Who is a child soldier? According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the notion of child soldier refers to: “any person under the age of 18 years who is, or 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 combatants, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes”. It was not included in humanitarian discourse until 1977.
The exposure of child soldiers in Africa
Since the 1990s, child soldiers have been used in repeated armed conflicts in Africa. They are used indiscriminately on the battlefield as combatants, human shields, sexual objects, messengers and spies. Kidnapped or forcibly recruited by armed groups, these child soldiers are exposed to all the vices of war. They are usually sent to the front lines and are the first victims of war. By this simple fact, they are exposed to the risk of violence, whether through direct participation in hostilities, as indirect victims of conflict, or as witnesses to abuses.
As a result, many minors die and many others are injured, maimed and sometimes have to deal with lifelong disabilities or psychological trauma. The figures that reveal this are terrible. Between 2000 and 2010, two million children were killed in conflicts, six million were seriously injured, one million were orphaned and more than twenty million were displaced around the world, says the editorial “Voices of Africa N° 80”.
While the main issue of their large numerical representation is that these children are forcibly recruited, there are also situations where, as mentioned in the report of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, “Child Recruitment and Use”, United Nations, 2018, in addition to being abducted from their families, many of these children voluntarily join armed forces or groups to escape poverty, domestic slavery or to defend or avenge their communities and family members. Some of them are even attracted by the respect and fear that their communities have for members of armed groups. All of which adds to the difficulties of reintegrating them into society when it is known that even States have sometimes played a large role in their recruitment.
The resentful participation of States in the recruitment of child soldiers
For a long time, the popular understanding was that the recruitment of child soldier was exclusively the hands of terrorist/jihadist groups. But with hindsight, many people and organizations have realized that it goes beyond that, involving the participation of some governments, government militias and vigilante groups in the name of war. In this respect, it is important for the African countries of the Great Lakes region to examine the situation since they are the most affected.
Africa remains the world’s largest source of child soldier recruitment. Despite the fact that the participation of children in armed conflict has been prohibited since 2002, according to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children continue to be recruited and used in the ranks of certain pro-government armies.
According to the U.S Department of State, which has blacklisted five African states in its Child Soldiers Prevention Act List, government armed forces in countries such as Southern Sudan, DRC, Somalia and Nigeria recruited child soldiers into their ranks between April 2014 and March 2015. However, with the signing of texts against the use of children in armed conflict in 2016, the situation has improved significantly in countries such as Somalia and the DRC. But in southern Sudan, for example, a UN report reveals that some 12,000 soldiers are fighting in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and rebel groups in southern Sudan. In the case of Nigeria, according to UNICEF, the Civilian Joint Task Force, a militia created in 2013 in Maiduguri, has counted among its ranks more than 894 child soldiers, including 106 girls, in the north-east of the country, who have helped the army fight Boko Haram. According to Mohammed Fall, UNICEF representative in Nigeria, “they have been used by armed groups in combat roles (…), and have witnessed killings and violence”. He added that, “several thousands are still in the ranks of the civilian militias created to protect the communities of the Boko Haram jihadist group”.
Some recent statistics of child soldiers enlisted in Africa
Child soldiers are everywhere in Africa. They are present in Algeria, Angola, Somalia, Burundi, Djibouti, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda. Even if the efforts of international organizations, national agencies and civil society are leading to notable progress in some regions of the world, the number of child soldiers remains high and even on the increase since 2012, with nearly 37,000 cases of recruitment verified by the UN. The organization’s Secretary General’s report on children and armed conflict for 2013 details 3,159 cases in 12 countries during 2012. The most recent UN Secretary-General’s Report on Children and Armed Conflict, released on July 30, 2019, reveals more than 7,000 confirmed cases of recruitment in 16 countries in 2018 alone. According to the report, the situation remains particularly alarming in Somalia (2,300 documented cases), where the highest number of verified cases of child soldiers was recorded in 2018. It is also critical in Nigeria (1,947), with the recruitment of 1,596 boys and 351 girls, including 1,646 by the Joint Civilian Task Force (CJTF), a Nigerian self-defense militia fighting against Boko Haram. In addition, there are a number of other cases that have been reported to the United Nations, but which have not been verified by the organization due to the difficulties to access these conflict areas.
Solutions to eradicate this problem
As the world celebrated the World Day of Child Soldiers on Wednesday, 12 February, thousands of children are still engaged in conflicts around the world. For the many NGOs fighting for the release, reintegration and prevention of child soldiers, the key to saving these young people whose lives have been shattered by violence and brutality is “education”. Thus, for Clovis Kadda Bathy-Polo, Director of the Action Group for the Demobilization and Reintegration of Child Soldiers (Gaderes), “not giving these children a chance to regain their place in the community would be disastrous for the future of society. These neglected children could become real time bombs and continue a spiral of violence in the escalation of conflicts”.
Supporting his thoughts, Mr. Sidiki Kaba, the Honorary President of the International Federation for Human Rights, Senegal, who welcomes the conviction of the Congolese Thomas Luganba Dyilo to 14 years in prison by the ICC for enlisting child soldiers, invokes the same solution. Calling on African institutions to take their destiny into their own hands, by proposing a social project, a global economic project, the main elements capable of helping to fight a real battle, Sidiki Kaba also believes that we must focus on education. For him, “children need their minds to be educated. Children need to be given knowledge and understanding, so that in today’s vast world, where there is fierce competition for the sale of the goods that are produced, they are in a better position to compete internationally with other children”.
In order to fill the remaining gaps, which calls for the establishment of means to eradicate this scourge and enable the reintegration of child soldiers involved in conflicts, the United Nations has decided to focus on specific programmes. The first series of acts in this regard came from the United Nations’ DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration) programmes, which aims to rebuild peace and stability, as well as the long-term development of post-conflict societies. To date, these programmes have demobilized more than 100,000 children in more than 15 countries. In order to ensure that the image of the child carrying a Kalashnikov larger than he is, which has become the typical symbol of African violence, is forever erased, several NGOs, such as Amnesty International, stress the need to combat poverty and all its perils. It is only in these conditions that the perspective will completely change.
Article from AFRIC Editorial
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