Picture a small child standing at your side, anywhere from eight to fifteen years old. Their arms are shrunken, and their belly is bloated. Their face is toneless and unimpassioned. Yet, these are not the most exceptional things about this child. Rather, grasped in their malnourished, clenched fists is a gun.
This child is a child soldier. Yes, this inhumane practice of brutality still persists. Ashamedly, these images of children fighting as soldiers cling to the outskirts of our communities and hide in the outermost shadows of our media, rather than being exposed to the public. If only more people knew the truth of the situation, a difference could be made. I want to show you, my captive audience, four key aspects of war children. The first consists of some background knowledge on the issue as a whole. Second, how the children are recruited and treated. Third, the implications, the psychological effect, of warfare on these individual’s lives. And finally, the reason this horrific situation still exists.
Allow me to familiarize you with specifics of the situation. Child soldiers are, as summarized by Child Soldiers International, “anyone under the age of 18 who has been recruited or used in hostilities by state armed forces or non-state armed groups,” http://child-soldiers.org/about_the_issues.php In other words, a child soldier is a soldier who is, well, a child. Surprisingly, the number of children in armed forces continues to steadily rise, even with all the social advances advertised by the media. Contrary to popular belief, http://www.warchild.org.uk/issues/child-soldiers “The participation of child soldiers has been reported in most armed conflicts and in almost every region of the world. Although there are no exact figures… tens of thousands of children…continue to serve in government forces or armed opposition groups.” Yes, you heard that correctly. War Child International estimated that there are 250,000 war children today. 40% of these soldiers are girls. Unfortunately, active combat is often a safer place for the young girls than the army camps where they are used as sex slaves. Now that you have a view of the reality war children live in everyday, let’s focus in a little closer on the children themselves.
Children are recruited in a variety ways, and most of the methods are horrific in one way or another. Beaten into compliance, willingly given up by impoverished families, abducted, or required of a village by a military group, these children scarcely choose to join the military. “As part of their recruitment, children are sometimes forced to kill or maim a family member - thus breaking the bonds with their community and making it difficult for them to return home.” http://www.warchild.org.uk/issues/child-soldiers Not only are children taken from their homes, but they generally can never return, thus, their lives are completely in the hands of their officials. There is no reestablishment; there is no re-integration into society. All cords are cut. A former child soldier who was recruited at the age of 13 said, "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." (Source: BBC report.) http://childsoldiers-sacss.weebly.com/unheard-voices.html. The point is that these children are not generally willing and do not volunteer, however some do seek to gain revenge on those who caused their pain through warfare. These thoughts lead directly to my third point.
The psychological and emotional effects are perfectly detrimental to children’s societal development. A study done by Elisabeth Schauer and Thomas Elbert on The Psychological Impact of Child Soldiering concluded that the severe levels of violence and atrocities create severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children. It messes with their mental health. Normal and healthy development is impaired. Social isolation drives grownup ex-child soldiers into alcohol, drug use, or other means with which to sustain themselves. Traumatization has far-reaching consequences which nullify any chance of future peace building development. http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/missing-peace/The%20psychologica... Do you understand? This damage can never be repaired. Using kids as soldiers creates one of the most horrendous situations in our world. Emmanuel Jal, a former war child, had every advantage possible. People funded his education and found homes for him once he escaped the war zone in Sudan. Yet, he was time and time again thrown out of schools not because his grades were bad, but because he simply could not integrate with normal society. Dreams plagued his nights and rage would unexpectedly fill his days. It wasn’t until he found the Lord that he was able to truly find himself again. Emmanuel will always suffer from the emotional damage he endured in his youth.
So, if the effects of war are so obviously atrocious, why is this still a problem? You would think humanity cries out against these kinds of situations. Indeed, International Human Rights Law “sets 18 as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities and for compulsory recruitment by state armed forces.” http://www.child-soldiers.org/international_standards.php Why does this situation still exist then? Well, though many people believe this is an issue of the past because legislation has passed, children are still being used as soldiers because they’re easy to attain, cheap, and honestly, they’re not valued. Commanders consider children easier to condition and brainwash because they often have an undeveloped sense of fear. “Due to their size and “expendability”, children are often sent into battle as scouts or decoys, or sent in the first wave to draw the enemy’s fire.” http://www.warchild.org.uk/issues/child-soldiers Again, these are hard truths, but they are truths. Humanity is not as kind as we like to believe. Though efforts are being made to end the war on childhood, the numbers continue to rise. Using children as soldiers is simply and unequivocally wrong. What needs to happen is for the nations to become informed about the issues at hand rather than hiding the unpleasant facts like secrets in the dark.
I’m begging you to please not forget about these children. These are the children that cannot speak because they’re dead, do not understand that their situation is a bad one, or are psychologically damaged. This indeed is not an issue of the past as war continues to steal away both life and innocence from these precious souls. Instead of clasping a gun in their small hands, these children should be holding pencils, books, toys, paint brushes, and things of peace and growth. To change social norms, one must begin with changing the outlook of the children. My question is, how can we change a society in which the children are the ones in war? Child. Soldier. Some words don’t belong together.