Q&A: What you need to know about child soldiers

World Vision’s Jesse Eaves answers questions about the use of child soldiers around the world, including where progress has been made in eliminating this practice, where more work needs to be done, and what the United States can do to be a global leader in stopping it.

By Kathryn Reid, World Vision U.S.
Published July 29, 2014 at 04:15pm PDT

Of all the brutalizing effects of conflict, none is more distressing than armed groups recruiting and using children as soldiers, sex slaves, even suicide bombers.

There’s no way to make a reliable count of the number of children serving in armed groups, but estimates range up to 250,000 or 300,000.

What is known, according to the recently released U.N. secretary-general’s annual report on children and conflict, is that child soldiers are recruited and used in 23 conflict situations around the world by 51 armed groups and seven nation’s armies.

Jesse Eaves, a senior policy adviser for World Vision, recently reflected on the state of the world’s child soldiers, as highlighted in the U.N. and the U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons report.

In the past year, how have we progressed in eliminating the use of child soldiers?

This past year, we saw some very encouraging developments from Myanmar. Almost two years ago, their government signed a Joint Action Plan to stop the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

World Vision is part of the Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting under this action plan. This task force is charged with reporting suspected cases and working with the government to ensure compliance with the action plan.

In the past year, 273 children were discharged from the military. However, there are still at least 200 children on the list of suspected child soldiers, so there is still more work to be done. It’s slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

The U.N.-led campaign called Children, Not Soldiers has had some success, too. The continued engagement of the U.N. led to joint action plans to end using child soldiers in multiple countries. These plans allow us to see how governments are doing and provide opportunities for us to assist governments as they try to demobilize child soldiers.

Chad, for example, showed a lot of progress and even passed a law mandating birth certificates for all citizens, in part to prevent recruitment of underage soldiers.

This year, the mandate for the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict expires. We are working with the U.N. to see that the mandate is renewed, given the impressive gains that office has realized around the world.

Where has the number of child soldiers increased?

South Sudan is the largest and most tragic case. Nearly half a million children have been displaced by South Sudan’s brutal civil war, making them extremely vulnerable to being recruited by armed groups. Whereas a year ago there were a few hundred children left in the army ranks, there are now over 9,000 children fighting for both sides.

Central African Republic and South Sudan are both crises at the highest level in terms of abuses against children. They include everything from killing and maiming of children, use of children as child soldiers, and attacking schools.

In some countries where the government doesn’t recruit child soldiers, other armed groups do. These include Colombia, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to name a few.

What can the U.S. government and citizens do to put an end to recruitment and use of child soldiers around the world?

The passage of the Child Soldier Prevention Act in 2008, which cut off military aid to any country using child soldiers in their national army, was a good step. Sadly, however, the United States has not been the leader it could be. The administration has been uneven in its implementation of the law.

The law requires that the State Department publish a list each year of countries that recruit and use child soldiers and that these countries not be eligible for military aid. This year, the State Department included Myanmar, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen on the list.

Yemen and South Sudan receive what are called “national security waivers” so aid can continue to flow. Some military aid was cut off to DRC, but some still goes through to help professionalize the army and help demobilize children.

Issuing these waivers means U.S. taxpayer money can support militaries that use children as weapons of war. This has to stop. The U.S. government must not let politics trump the protection of the millions of vulnerable children in South Sudan and elsewhere. Citizens can contact the White House and Congress, and urge them to ensure this law is enforced so that children are protected.

People often feel sympathy for children forced into prostitution. Is it the same for child soldiers?

Not always. However, just as with anyone coming out of sex trafficking, you treat them like a survivor and never like a criminal.

Child soldiers are often forced to perform horrific acts against adults and other children. A child who is forced to serve as a soldier shouldn’t be held responsible for crimes they commit under duress. They need forgiveness and restoration.

It’s crucial that every child affected by war gains access to the care and services they need to get their lives back on track so they can get the chance to live life in all its fullness.

Ways you can help

  • Please pray for children around the world who are victims of or vulnerable to the crime of forced conscription. Pray for the restoration of those who have witnessed or committed terrible acts under duress — that they would receive compassionate care that leads to restoration. Pray especially for the international will to put an end to this horrendous practice.
  • Speak out. Tell President Obama to stop U.S. military aid to South Sudan and other countries who use child soldiers in their military operations.
  • Make a one-time donation to support World Vision’s efforts against human trafficking. Your gift will help provide safe places for trafficked and vulnerable children, as well as counseling and vocational training to help them recover from their traumatic experiences. Additionally, you’ll help reunite trafficked children with their families and support the appropriate authorities to identify, investigate, and prosecute perpetrators of this crime.

Highlights

  • Although there’s no way to make a reliable count of the number of children serving in armed groups, estimates range up to 250,000 or 300,000.
  • Some global progress has been made in eliminating the practice of recruiting children as soldiers, sex slaves, and even suicide bombers. But in countries like South Sudan, thousands of children are being drawn into these terrible crimes right now.
  • To be a global leader in the fight against use of child soldiers, the United States must ensure that existing federal law is carried out as written following years of inconsistent enforcement.

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