Child soldiers and child combatants may seem like a far away problem, but you might be surprised at how common they still are. In 14 countries that span the globe from Asia, to Africa and South America, children as young as 10 are being trained, armed and sent to the front lines. If these children survive combat, they often grow up with a unique set of psychosocial issues that are rarely addressed in their home countries. Most of these countries have diplomatic ties with the west, and a number of them receive aid, yet the vast majority of these countries would rather ignore this issue than confront it head on. Here are 5 places that sill use child soldiers today:
Clashes in this island nation between government groups and rebel forces have led to recruitment of children on all sides. Groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, New People’s Army and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have subjected children as young as 11 to all out combat. And although much of the press has died down about the ongoing fighting in the Philippines, in January of this year three children were found among the more than 50 dead bodies, killed during clashes on the island of Mindanao.
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Yet even worse, governmental forces have been known to arrest children for arbitrary reasons and trot them out in front of the media as ‘child warriors’. This is done, in part, to show the ‘inhumanity’ of rebel groups (despite reports of the national army also arming children). When Human Rights Watch investigated these ‘child warriors,’ they found that most of the children detained by the government lacked any substantial links to rebel groups.
In northern India, the Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), a banned rebel group, has been abducting young boys looking for work opportunities. Taken to remote training villages across the border in Burma, estimates put child soldiers in the region between 500 and 3,000.
These boys, forced to live in harsh jungle conditions, are brainwashed and taught to fight, maim and torture. In 2008, a video released by PREPAK showed groups of children marching for the camera, fully armed.
Young girls have also been disappearing from their villages. One parent reports she received a phone call after her daughter went missing alleging she was at a training camp in Burma. Whether these girls are taken to learn combat, or to work as sexual slaves is unknown.
Yet because most of the fighting occurs in Northeast India, away from the financial powerhouses in the south, very few in government are noticing, or caring, about this surge in child soldiers. Meaning that opportunities for rehabilitation are severely limited.
Central African Republic
The current civil war in the CAR has had a devastating effect on its various communities. The two rebel groups, Seleka and anti-Balaka, have been taking turns committing mass atrocities in the capital and around the country for the past two years. However, it’s the rampant use of child soldiers that makes this conflict particularly brutal.
UN estimates put the amount of child soldiers at 6,000, which include boys and girls. Often the women in the region aren’t taken in for combat (although certainly some participate) but rather to be used for free labor and sexual slavery.
However, sexual assaults are rarely limited to the girls. High rates of rape and sexual slavery among young boys has also been witnessed in these conflict regions. Rampant drug use is also reported, with adults doping up children to inhibit their sense of right and wrong. And while in nearby Uganda, there are numerous programs to help child soldiers (due to its past with LRA rebel groups) getting the children into such programs is nearly impossible due to travel restrictions. Rather, those who manage to escape are left to face their past in squalid refugee camps.
The Somali-based terrorist group of Al Shabaab has been recruiting child soldiers for years. Common practices include coercing children into carrying out suicide bombings and using them in some of their most dangerous missions. These days, because Al Shabaab’s forces are shrinking as they lose ground to the African Union, more children than ever are being abducted to levy their forces. In addition, kidnapping women and forcing them into ‘marriages’ to produce more Al Shabaab fighters has become common.
One village elder explained that Al Shabaab prefers children up front because they don’t understand when a battle is being lost or won and will just keep fighting without retreat. Furthermore, after years of brainwashing and indoctrination, most children grow up believing that Al Shabaab’s war is a just cause.
In Colombia, thousands of children have fought in the guerrilla militias such as FARC and the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Sometimes lured in by family members sympathetic to the rebellion, or via drugged kidnapping, the kids here are quickly stripped of their innocence. Girls are used for sexual slavery as well as slave labor; meanwhile boys are quickly forced into murder, torture and mutilation, to strip them of any semblance of mercy.
Living in the harsh jungles of Colombia, many children are subjected to constant drills while lacking proper nourishment. For those that do manage to escape, the situation is tremendously fragile as desertion is punishable by death. However, with children as young as 11 being trained to head into the front lines, many of these children will never reach adulthood.