“I would like you to give a message. Please do your best to tell the world what is happening to us, the children. So that other children don’t have to pass through this violence.”
The 15-year-old girl who ended an interview to Amnesty International with this plea was forcibly abducted at night from her home by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an armed opposition movement fighting the Ugandan Government. She was made to kill a boy who tried to escape. She saw another boy being hacked to death for not raising the alarm when a friend ran away. She was beaten when she dropped a water container and ran for cover under gunfire. She received 35 days of military training and was sent to fight the government army.
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 around the world.
Children involved in armed conflict are frequently killed or injured during combat or while carrying out other tasks. They are forced to engage in hazardous activities such as laying mines or explosives, as well as using weapons. Child soldiers are usually forced to live under harsh conditions with insufficient food and little or no access to health care. They are almost always treated brutally, subjected to beatings and humiliating treatment. Punishments for mistakes or desertion are often very severe. Girl soldiers are particularly at risk of rape, sexual harassment and abuse as well as being involved in combat and other tasks.
Why Children Join
Children are forcibly recruited into armed groups in many conflicts but the vast majority of child soldiers are adolescents between the age of 14 and 18 who “volunteer” to join up. However, research has shown that a number of factors may be involved in making the decision to actually join an armed conflict and in reality many such adolescents see few alternatives to enlisting. War itself is a major determinant. Economic, social, community and family structures are frequently ravaged by armed conflict and joining the ranks of the fighters is often the only means of survival. Many youths have reported that desire to avenge the killing of relatives or other violence arising from war is an important motive.
Poverty and lack of access to educational or work opportunities are additional factors – with joining up often holding out either the promise or the reality of an income or a means of getting one. Coupled with this may be a desire for power, status or social recognition. Family and peer pressure to join up for ideological or political reasons or to honour family tradition may also be motivating factors. Girl soldiers have reported joining up to escape domestic servitude or enforced marriage or get away from domestic violence, exploitation and abuse.
- The problem is most critical in Africa, where children as young as nine have been involved in armed conflicts. Children are also used as soldiers in various Asian countries and in parts of Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.
- The majority of the world’s child soldiers are involved in a variety of armed political groups. These include government-backed paramilitary groups, militias and self-defence units operating in many conflict zones. Others include armed groups opposed to central government rule, groups composed of ethnic religious and other minorities and clan-based or factional groups fighting governments and each other to defend territory and resources.
- Most child soldiers are aged between 14 and 18. While many enlist “voluntarily” research shows that such adolescents see few alternatives to involvement in armed conflict. Some enlist as a means of survival in war-torn regions after family, social and economic structures collapse or after seeing family members tortured or killed by government forces or armed groups. Others join up because of poverty and lack of work or educational opportunities. Many girls have reported enlisting to escape domestic servitude, violence and sexual abuse.
- Forcible abductions, sometimes of large numbers of children, continue to occur in some countries. Children as young as nine have been abducted and used in combat.
- Demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs specifically aimed at child soldiers have been established in many countries, both during and after armed conflict and have assisted former child soldiers to acquire new skills and return to their communities. However, the programs lack funds and adequate resources. Sustained long-term investment is needed if they are to be effective.
- Despite growing recognition of girls’ involvement in armed conflict, girls are often deliberately or inadvertently excluded from DDR programs. Girl soldiers are frequently subject to rape and other forms of sexual violence as well as being involved in combat and other roles. In some cases they are stigmatized by their home communities when they return. DDR programs should be sensitively constructed and designed to respond to the needs of girl soldiers.
Voices of Young Soldiers
“I feel so bad about the things that I did. It disturbs me so much that I inflicted death on other people. When I go home I must do some traditional rites because I have killed. I must perform these rites and cleanse myself. I still dream about the boy from my village that I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me, saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying.” A 16-year-old girl after demobilization from an armed group (Source: U.S. State Dept. TIP Report 2005)
Democratic Republic of the Congo
“When they came to my village, they asked my older brother whether he was ready to join the militia. He was just 17 and he said no; they shot him in the head. Then they asked me if I was ready to sign, so what could I do – I didn’t want to die.” A former child soldier taken when he was 13. (BBC report.)
“They gave me a uniform and told me that now I was in the army. They even gave me a new name: ‘Pisco’ They said that they would come back and kill my parents if I didn’t do as they said.” Report of interview with a 17 year old former child soldier in 2006
“Being new, I couldn’t perform the very difficult exercises properly and so I was beaten every morning. Two of my friends in the camp died because of the beatings. The soldiers buried them in the latrines. I am still thinking of them”. Former child soldier interviewed in 2002.
“I joined the SPLA when I was 13. I am from Bahr Al Ghazal . They demobilized me in 2001 and took me to Rumbek, but I was given no demobilization documents. Now, I am stuck here because my family was killed in a government attack and because the SPLA would re-recruit me. At times I wonder why I am not going back to SPLA, half of my friends have and they seem to be better off than me.” Boy interviewed by Coalition staff, southern Sudan, February 2004.
“Early on when my brothers and I were captured, the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] explained to us that all five brothers couldn´t serve in the LRA because we would not perform well. So they tied up my two younger brothers and invited us to watch. Then they beat them with sticks until two of them died. They told us it would give us strength to fight. My youngest brother was nine years old.” Former child soldier, aged 13.
“There was no one in charge of the dormitories and on a nightly basis we were raped. The men and youths would come into our dormitory in the dark, and they would just rape us – you would just have a man on top of you, and you could not even see who it was. If we cried afterwards, we were beaten with hosepipes. We were so scared that we did not report the rapes The youngest girl in our group was aged 11 and she was raped repeatedly in the base.” 19-year-old girl describing her experience in the National Youth Service Training Program.
“He had to run away to a forest with his friend to join the underground. He was 14 when he first held a gun in his hands. He said he loves to go to school but for the poverty of his family he has to lift a gun. Now he is earning enough money with the help of the gun for himself and send money for his family also.” Report of interview with 16-year-old boy, northeast India, 2004.
Indonesia, Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam province (Aceh)
“I know the work [monitoring the apparatus] is dangerous, and my parents had tried to stop me from getting involved. But I want to do something for the nanggroe therefore I was called for the fight. I am ready for all risks” Boy interviewed in March 2004: worked as an informant for the armed political group Free Aceh Movement, to spy on the Indonesian military when he was 17 years old.
“They filled the forms and asked my age, and when I said 16, I was slapped and he said, ‘You are 18. Answer 18’ He asked me again and I said, ‘But that’s my true age’. The sergeant asked, ‘Then why did you enlist in the army?” I said, ‘Against my will. I was captured.’ He said, ‘Okay, keep your mouth shut then,’ and he filled in the form. I just wanted to go back home and I told them, but they refused. I said, ‘Then please just let me make one phone call’ but they refused that too.” Maung Zaw Oo, describing the second time he was forced into the Tatmadaw Kyi (army) in 2005
“I ran away (to join an armed group) to escape a marriage I didn’t like”. Girl soldier in Sri Lanka.
Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation
“Russia has turned us into cattle. It is driving our youth into the arms of whoever comes along first and says ‘Go with us’.” Mother in Chechnya.
“They give you a gun and you have to kill the best friend you have. They do it to see if they can trust you. If you don’t kill him, your friend will be ordered to kill you. I had to do it because otherwise I would have been killed. That’s why I got out. I couldn’t stand it any longer.” 17-year-old boy, joined paramilitary group aged 7, when a street child.
“I joined the guerrilla to escape … I thought I’d get some money and could be independent”. 17-year-old girl soldier with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, interviewed in 2002.
Middle East and North Africa
“I joined the Mahdi army to fight the Americans. Last night I fired a rocket-propelled grenade against a tank” A 12 year-old boy in Najaf, 2004.
Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories
“I was detained on 18 March 2003… We are in a very small room with 11 people… We are allowed to use the bathroom only three times a day at specific times. Once a week we are allowed to take a 30-minute recess. The prison guards force us into shabeh position: they tie our hands up and one leg and then we have to face the wall.” 15-year-old boy arrested by Israeli forces, reporting on detention conditions in an Israeli settlement outside Ramallah, April 2003.