Child Soldiers: Lost Youth
Nov 10, 2011 at 2:53 pm
By Marie Owens
The recruitment of children as soldiers is one of Six Grave Violations Against Children During Armed Conflict that is recognized by the United Nations. Not only are child soldiers vulnerable to other atrocities of war - being killed or maimed, sexually exploited or abducted and sold into slavery - they suffer lifelong psychological trauma even if they survive a war and are able to escape military service. Also, complex issues of culpability arise if child soldiers have participated in war crimes or are found to have committed atrocities themselves. It doesn't matter if one has a background in psychology or a criminal justice degree; everyone can understand the horror behind child soldiers.
A person of age 18 or older who joins any branch of the military is assumed to have made a rational and informed decision. The same cannot be said of those younger than 18 who join armies or militias. Like many adults who decide to become soldiers, children who join military organizations often do so because they have limited options. They may face extreme poverty or even starvation, or a life of hard manual labor. Most children who become soldiers have little or no opportunity for schooling before they are recruited. Children who become soldiers do so for many of the same reasons that adults do - to satisfy a sense of adventure, to take revenge on ethnic groups that have killed or injured family members or attempt to improve their social status. A key difference between adult recruits and child recruits is that many child recruits are orphans, and so have no one to counsel them on the possible consequences of their actions. Many children don't have the mental capacity to understand that they could be killed during combat. Children are much more easily indoctrinated than adults because they lack the education and maturity to adequately question the statements made by recruiters and trainers.
A key difference between adults who are drafted or conscripted into armies and children who are forcibly enlisted into militias is that most children are illegally conscripted. Some soldiers who are younger than 18 are drafted or allowed to join military units because of a lack of adequate procedures to verify the age of enlistees. A recent report released by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers details how both sides in an armed conflict in Southern Thailand used child soldiers. Children are often forced to join rebel armies or organizations that have criminal or financial goals rather than political aims.
The psychological and emotional trauma suffered by child soldiers often begins well before they join a military organization; at the death of their own mother. A study conducted among children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda shows that children who had lost their mothers suffered even more psychological damage than other child soldiers. The same study reveals that these children form bonds with their captors, and identify with their goals. Many child soldiers have lost not only their parents, but siblings, neighbors and members of their extended families as a result of armed conflict. Recruiters are able to exploit the grief and sense of loss suffered by children by offering a sense of belonging in the army. Child soldiers do gain a sense of belonging in an army, even when they have to endure beatings, rape and other forms of sexual exploitation and miserable living conditions. The children are so thoroughly indoctrinated that they believe they deserve such treatment or that the treatment is necessary in order for the army to win the war. Poor treatment and exposure to combat contribute to the psychological trauma suffered by children before joining a military organization. Psychological counseling is now an important component of international efforts to demobilize child soldiers.
While children who are used as human shields clearly have no culpability in the actions in which they are involved, the issue of culpability becomes less clear for children who carry and use weapons. Child combatants who are taken prisoner by their enemies are considered just as much potential combatants by their captors as adult soldiers who are taken prisoner. Legal questions of culpability may arise if a soldier committed atrocities before reaching the age of 18. The Nuremberg war crimes trials established that merely following orders is not a defense for committing atrocities. This isn't very clear when the atrocities are committed by children, as children lack the judgment and maturity to determine if their actions are atrocities. They may also lack the emotional strength to resist orders given by adults. Naomi Cahn, in her article Poor Children: Child Sorcerers and Child Soldiers in Sub-Saharan Africa, calls for "social services justice." Such an approach acknowledges that child soldiers have diminished capacity to make informed decisions and may not have full culpability for their actions, but also acknowledges that child soldiers most likely need psychological counseling and other social services before they can rejoin society without risk of becoming lifelong criminals or career soldiers.
In some parts of the world, children as young as nine-years-old are forced to fight in armed conflicts. Those younger than fifteen who become soldiers often have great difficulty re-integrating into civil society at the end of armed conflict. Many international efforts have been established to address these issues, but much more needs to be done.