An Exploration of Child Soldiering in Three Countries Sarah Eisele

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An Exploration of Child Soldiering in Three Countries

Sarah Eisele

The use of children in wars is one of the most heinous types of child abuse of our time. This article will explore briefly the use of child soldiers in Uganda, Sri Lanka and Columbia, with discussion of what social workers can do in those nations and in their own. The discussion will include the push factors that lead children to either join or be vulnerable to exploitation.

When looking at the abuse that child soldiers have experienced, actions that they are forced or persuaded to perpetrate are considered part of their abuse, as are atrocities that they observe. Child soldiers need to recover from the crimes they themselves committed or were forced to observe - they are both victims and victimizers. This is what makes their treatment and reintegration difficult. Each of the countries profiled here have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2008) and the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (referred to as the Optional Protocol). They also have domestic laws that prevent the recruitment of children into the armed forces. Nonetheless, both governmental and guerrilla groups in their countries often continue to exploit children as soldiers.

The definition of a child, according to the CRC, "means every human being below the age of eighteen years" (Article 1). The Optional Protocol, however, states that "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years or using them to participate actively in hostilities in both international and non-international armed conflicts" constitutes a war crime (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 2002). The International Labour Office states that "The demand for young soldiers is high, as they are known to be less fearful and more compliant..." (International Labour Office, 2003, p. 1) than adults. While the CRC and the Optional Protocol indicate that the minimum age of conscription is 15, the definition for a child in this discussion will be any person under the age of 18 years. This is the definition of children in the CRC, and is also the age when individuals perform adult tasks in their development.

The definition of child soldier subscribed to in this article is

The involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children and adolescents in armed conflict they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent, and which adversely affects the child's right to unhindered growth and identity as a child (de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001).

This definition lays a basis against the use of child soldiers from a behavioral, physical, and mental health standpoint. It is necessary to look at solutions for recovery and the impact of child soldiering on each of these aspects of growth and development.

The estimate of the number of child soldiers is down from 300,000 in 1997 to 250,000 in 2008 (InterPress Service News Agency, 2008). Though this number may not seem high enough to warrant the great attention this issue receives, this number only represents those currently being used as child soldiers, not the cumulative number of child soldiers over the years. Despite laws that criminalize the recruitment of children through national or international laws, the use of child soldiers is well documented throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in many countries. Between 2004-2007 these included Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Columbia, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, Uganda (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2008).

As of February, 2009, the United States and Somalia are the only two countries in the world that have not ratified the CRC. According to UNICEF, Somalia has not ratified the convention because it does not have a functioning government (UNICEF, n.d.). There are (three) major ideological oppositions against the U.S. ratification of the treaty. The general view in the U.S. is that the government should not interfere with people's lives, leading to a reluctance by the U.S. to recognize economic, social and cultural rights in general. This leads into another ideological opposition to the CRC, which is U.S. sovereignty. There is a fear that ratifying the Convention that the international community would be able to interfere with domestic law and policy (Ruthkow & Lozman, 2006). The last major ideological opposition is the a fear that the CRC will erode the rights of parents by giving children greater autonomy, and that the traditional family structure would be at risk (Anderson, 2001). Though the U.S. has not ratified the CRC, it has ratified its optional protocols, the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.


Uganda is perhaps one of the most well known offenders for the use of child soldiers. As is the case in many African nations, Uganda is comprised of 12 ethnic groups, none of which are an overwhelming majority. Violence has been almost constant since their independence in 1962, whether in the form of outright war, or the repression of dissidents under Prime Ministers Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and Yoweri Museveni. The history of using child soldiers dates back to 1986, when Museveni used child soldiers to help overthrow the second Obote government. Joseph Kony eventually created the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and began kidnapping children to use them as soldiers as early as 1987. Kony, who is from the Acholi tribe and was believed to be "possessed by spirits," led the LRA to cleanse their own tribe of their sins through cruelty and terrorism. Kony demonstrated extreme brutality to people in many villages through several large massacres.

Kony was even more cruel toward children than adults. Between 1997-1999, the LRA abducted over 4,000 children under the age of 18, and a recent estimate on the total number of children taken has reached 30,000 (AlertNet, 2005; Briggs, 2005; United Nations, n.d.). According to Derluyn, Broekaert, Schuyten & Temmerman, 90% of soldiers the LRA recruit are children, and most under the age of 13 (Derluyn, Broekaert, Schuyten, & De Temmerman, 2003). Each night, about 40,000 children flee to nearby cities to avoid capture (Sohn, n.d.).

The soldiers in the LRA fostered an environment of fear, coupled with kindness, to create loyalty within the children toward their leaders. This fear in part was cultivated through being threatened with death if they left the LRA either by the LRA or by government forces. One child who had been a captive in his army said that Kony ordered "his soldiers to execute small children by firing squad" (Briggs, 2005, p. 117). He also said that if a boy was suspected of being friends with a girl they would kill him instantly, and that if Kony labeled a child a traitor, he would make one of the other children kill the traitor (Briggs, 2005). Some of the youth tell stories of being forced to brutally murder, even their own family members with machetes or watch as others did so (Denholm, 2005; Derluyn, Broekaert, Schuyten, & De Temmerman, 2003). They also saw people being killed, including their families. Of the 248 children who participated in the study, 66% of the fathers and 37% of the mothers were dead. Of those who had died, 46% of the fathers and 32% of the mothers had been killed. Many also had to loot and destroy the properties of civilians, and participate in military training. Many were beaten and sustained serious injuries while fighting. Denholm, et. al. (2003) found that almost all of the children who completed one test found severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The effects on girls who were child soldiers were in some ways more severe than in boys. Girls whose mothers were no longer alive showed higher tendency toward avoidance behaviors due to the trauma of her death. Girls were taken as wives at young ages, many became pregnant, only to raise their children in the violent environment of the LRA. The trauma of being raped compounds the other abuses they suffer (Briggs, 2005; Human Rights Watch, 2003).

Sri Lanka

The use of child soldiers in Sri Lanka is less widely known than the situation in Uganda. The people of Sri Lanka have endured 25 years of violence. Civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, a culmination of years of conflict between the minority Hindu Tamils and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese, and has continued ever since (Briggs, 2005; Guruge, 2006). Like Uganda, the fighting is related to ethnic conflict. The war is between the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese who are in control of the government. Since 1983 over 60,000 civilians have died and over 600,000 have been displaced. Though the Tamil's comprise only 1/6 of the population of Sri Lanka, they constitute "one of the fiercest, most feared guerilla groups in the world" (Briggs, 2005, p. 81). Despite being a much smaller force than the government military, their terrorism methods, which include suicide bombings, guerilla warfare, and conventional warfare, have been highly successful. The people of Sri Lanka live in constant fear, since they never know when they could be attacked.

Most Tamil children have been exposed to violence either through participation in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), or through the witness of torture, rape or murder by the government, which could lead them to glorify the guerilla fighters (Briggs, 2005; InterPress Service News Agency, 2008). A whole generation has known no peace, only war. Many are orphans, homeless, internally displaced, and often caught between the two warring sides. There are over 900,000 children living in the area with heavy fighting. The children who are fortunate enough not to be forced into the LTTE have little access to schooling whether they are displaced or living in their own homes (Briggs, 2005).

Unlike Uganda, many children join the LTTE "voluntarily" (De Capua, 2005), but some are also forced to join (Briggs, 2005). One study found that children identified revenge, martyrdom, fear of being abducted, and economic factors as the main reasons they entered the group (de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001).

Children who are soldiers with the LTTE suffer in some of the same ways as child soldiers in other countries. Almost all children perform manual labor working around the camps and carrying heavy items when they are training or trekking. One study found that half the children interviewed participated in fighting, and most were trained in how to use firearms. A third of the children learned how to manufacture bombs and set sea or landmines. Children also were emotionally abused and encouraged to kill. Others were verbally assaulted, bullied and frightened through death threats or blackmail (de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001). If a child could not do the work due to illness or size of the load, they are punished. Entire groups sometimes are punished if one of the children does not do what they are told. When children attempt to escape they are beaten, imprisoned, blackmailed, or received death threats. Rarely is this punishment brought by other children (Human Rights Watch, 2004; de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001). Children who leave the LTTE could also become the victims of brutal murder, sometimes along with their families (Briggs, 2005). A ceasefire was signed in 2002 (n.a., 2008),[1] and prior to this, children fought in combat and were even sent out into battle before they recovered from injuries received in battle (Human Rights Watch, 2004). Because of the history of the use of child soldiers in Sri Lanka, it seems likely that children are still used as soldiers.

In 1985, the LTTE began an all-female fighting force called the "Liberation Birds." They are known internationally as the most tough, committed fighters in the world. Many of these young women are suicide bombers. In any attack, women comprise half of the rebel fighters. These women generally do not join for retribution, but want to have what many people want to have - a life where they can contribute to their community in a meaningful, positive way (Keairns, 2003).


Columbia has endured violence since its independence from Spain in 1810. In 1948, a civil war broke out when presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assasinated (Human Rights Watch, 2003, p. 19). The past 60 years are known as "La Violencia." After the initial wave of intense violence in 1948, a deal was brokered that was to be the end of the fighting, but the inequities over which people were struggling were not sufficiently addressed. Since that time, three major rebel forces have emerged, all considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. While one of these, the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (AUC) is the one that has been accused of the most abuse and murders of civilians, all subject the people of Columbia to lives of fear and violence (Briggs, 2005). Human Rights Watch (2003) has found that of all non-government soldiers in Columbia, one out of four is under the age of 18. The use of child soldiers varies with the different groups, but all groups use them, including governmental forces (Briggs, 2005; Human Rights Watch, 2003).

According to Briggs, the use of children in conflicts becomes almost inevitable the longer a conflict lasts. "The more adult males who are wounded, killed, or captured, the more youngsters will become the inevitable recruiting pool" (p. 41). Of the child combatants, 25%-50% are estimated to be females, some as young as eight (Human Rights Watch, 2003). Some children are forced to join, but others join by choice. Push factors are similar to those in other countries. Some of these groups pay soldiers, and children who live in poverty see enlistment as an opportunity to generate income for their families. While the rebel groups are driven by an ideology, most of the children who join the various groups are driven by "social exclusion, mistreatment, lack of educational opportunities, and lack of jobs in rural and marginal areas" (Briggs, 2005, p. 43). Girls join for these reasons, but also to sometimes "escape sexual abuse in the home" (Human Rights Watch, 2003, p. 9), to be socially included, and to have the possibility of a career with the guerrilla groups that they would not have otherwise (Human Rights Watch, 2003). In Uganda, girls who are part of the guerilla forces become the "wives" of men in their units, but in Columbia, sexual abuse happens less frequently, at least is of a different nature. Those victims of sexual abuse are "required to use contraception, and must have abortions if they get pregnant" (Human Rights Watch, 2003, p. 10). Babies and young children are not raised in these guerilla communities as they are in Uganda.

The children who are used as soldiers in Columbia are treated slightly differently in each group, but there are more similarities than differences. If a child commits a serious breach of group rules, one group holds a war council in which charges are laid before the group and a show of hands determines whether a person is sentenced to death or not. Children are also forced to execute other children, enemies who have been captured, or sometimes torture enemies that have been captured. In addition, children sometimes participate in capturing and executing those suspected of belonging to paramilitary groups, and kidnapping with ransoms. In cities they assist in practicing street justice through executing or driving out criminals, drug dealers, and demanding money from businesses. Former child soldiers that were interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that they "were forced to mutilate and kill captured guerrillas," "saw acid thrown in the faces of captives" and saw captives being "mutilated with chainsaws" (Human Rights Watch, 2003, p. 9).

Columbia signed the Optional Protocol in May 2005, and also passed several laws in Columbia to prevent children under the age of 18 from entering the armed forces (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2008).

The Role of Social Work in Response

Social work can play a significant role in addressing the issue of child soldiers in individual countries as well as worldwide. Social workers can be involved in prevention and aftercare, in addressing the circumstances that cause children to be exploited, and contributing to the research and subsequent solutions to addressing root causes of the problem. A systems theory approach, which seeks to deal with the problem at all levels, is necessary to create a holistic and systematic approach to ending the use of child soldiers. Social workers specialize in working on this type of comprehensive change, and are particularly suited to combating problems at all levels.

Micro and Meso Practice: Individual and Group Intervention

There are several mental health impacts on child soldiers that are predictable. One study conducted with former child soldiers from Uganda indicated that 97% of the children "reported post-traumatic stress reactions of clinical importance" (Derluyn, Broekaert, Schuyten, & De Temmerman, 2003, p. 861). The children in this research had seen a median of six traumatic events; 77% of them saw someone killed while they were being abducted; 6% saw their family members being killed; 39% had to kill another person; and 2% had to kill one of their own relatives (Derluyn, Broekaert, Schuyten, & De Temmerman, 2003).

A study conducted in Sri Lanka by de Silva, et. al. (2001) acknowledges that children conscripted into the military suffer from higher rates of PTSD than adults who are conscripted. The researchers were interested in studying the thwarted development and subsequent emotional and psychological abuse endured by the children. Using the indicators developed by Gabrino, Guttman & Seeley, the abusers engaged in corrupting the children, terrorizing them, isolating them, and disciplining them in a psychologically abusive way. Isolation is identified as the most damaging of the four indicators, but each of them prevents children from completing the tasks they need to in order to develop their identities and contribute positively to their community. The emotional consequences for the majority of the children interviewed included sad moods, preoccupations, suicidal thoughts and fears. Most of them experienced loss in relation to the death of members of their family and social status as a result of their actions. Some felt they had lost educational opportunity, but others felt they had gained educational opportunity, and some felt they had lost friendships while others felt they had gained friendships. This study also found that while all children in Sri Lanka grew up as a generation knowing nothing but war, and being subjected to indoctrination so they would feel hatred against their enemy, the children who were conscripted were from families living in poverty. Children from privileged families would have removed them from the conflict if they were conscripted (de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001).

While children in Columbia experienced developmental, psychological, and mental consequences, in my brief search in the literature I found none exploring their specific experience. In any case, it is common in all countries for returning child soldiers to be rejected by their families and communities who fear their violent behavior. There is a universal need for the rehabilitation of these children, their families and their communities. This is the purview of social workers.

Macro Practice: Political Advocacy

Another area in which social workers can become involved is advocacy on a national and international level. This includes organizing people in the countries that suffer this atrocity, as well as using the networks we have to organize advocacy efforts. Areas that need advocacy include:

Holding governments accountable who use or allow the use of child soldiers (Briggs, 2005; Human Rights Watch, 2003; Human Rights Watch, 2004; Human Rights Watch, 2003). Each of the nations listed in this article are subject to national and international laws against the use of child soldiers.

Funding for rehabilitation and reintegration, not only disarmament and demobilization (Chao, 2003; InterPress Service News Agency, 2008) on national and international levels. This rehabilitation must also be provided for communities which have endured violence and those from which children have become soldiers. Economic development, access to quality education and vocational training (International Labour Organization, 2003), and the creation of jobs is essential to prevent further child soldiering.

Redefining "the worst forms of child labour" in The ILO Convention 182 (International Labour Organization, 1999) to include children who are forcibly taken as soldiers, and those who seem to have joined voluntarily. A child is unable to fully weigh the consequences or benefits of becoming a child soldier and their decision to join is oftentimes a result of coercion rather than choice.

U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and participation in the International Criminal Courts (Amnesty International, 2007).

The creation of courts or commissions, modeled after one that has taken place or is currently taking place which can help communities resolve conflict and in bring justice to the individuals and communities that have been affected. These include the Gacaca Courts in Rwanda (Rinaldo, 2004) or the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions held in South Africa and Sierra Leone (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2007; Truth and Reconciliation Commission, n.d.).

The creation of a position in the national government, such as an ombudsmen, to oversee children's rights, including dealing with the issue of child soldiers.

Social workers also can become politicians, ambassadors, develop relevant non-governmental organizations, conduct research, and write policy papers in order to bring about these changes.

Local Advocacy

Social workers can be involved on the local level in affected or at risk areas in many ways as well. Education, report writing, social integration, and working toward conflict resolution are important roles for social workers in affected communities. These could include:

Educating communities on their human rights as well as the rights granted to them through the various international treaties their governments have signed.

Rehabilitation efforts that include normalizing the environment as soon as possible, not including psychotherapy (Lynne Healy, personal communication, October 10, 2008). This should include the use of the cultural art to tell stories, which will promote healing and educate the community for prevention (Mitra, 2001).

Empowering the community through women's groups and other community groups to determine what they need to do in order to be safe, or what changes they may want to make in the community as a result of their experiences.

Working toward the social integration of those who have been physically injured or maimed through gaining access to healthcare for the community members to deal with the many physical injuries they have suffered.

Writing reports on violations of the Optional Protocol and ILO Convention182, which provide legal standards with which to hold governments accountable.

Working with communities to create "safety zones so that even in the war zones children can continue to study and play" (InterPress Service News Agency, 2008). UNICEF partners with communities to do this, and through the process of creating safe zones, warring groups need to work together in an effort to protect their children. This can lead to reconciliation between groups (UNICEF, 2008).

Promoting the reintegration of the child soldiers needs to be one of the ultimate goals (Briggs, 2005; InterPress Service News Agency, 2008; International Labour Office, 2003). Whatever their local involvement, social workers also can conduct research in order to better understand the best practices of rehabilitation for the communities and former child soldiers. Since reintegration is often the most difficult aspect of the recovery process, research concerning these efforts will be useful in improving the process.

Preventing the Use of Child Soldiers: Social Work's Role

Preventing and eliminating child soldiering is superseded by the elimination of conflicts that create environments where the use of child soldiers seems expedient. In each of the countries discussed here, either ethnic or class conflicts continue to fuel the fighting. Children are used because they are "cheap, effective and obedient fighters" (Landau, n.d.), because the conflict has lasted for an extended period and the adult population cannot provide the number of soldiers needed (Briggs, 2005; Landau, n.d.). They also are easy to exploit and are sometimes more fearless and cruel in their actions in combat than adults (Landau, n.d.). Therefore, to prevent the use of child soldiers, resolution of the conflict must be one of the highest priorities in addressing the use of child soldiers in these countries. Since we now see that the more protracted a conflict, the more children are used as soldiers, the resolution of conflict must be promoted quickly. Historically, many social workers have been openly pacifist, and have been vocal in their opposition to conflict (Healy, 2008). Social workers in the U.S. must be more vocal in our opposition to conflicts that do not directly affect us, and perhaps social workers in other countries need to do the same.

While conflict resolution is the best way to prevent the use of child soldiers, this is not always possible. The most important question to consider then is: "why do some groups recruit [children] and not others?" (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and Armed Conflict, 2008). The most difficult aspect of addressing the issue of child soldiers is dealing with the root causes. Some of the contributing factors to the use of child soldiers include: lack of employment opportunities; poor educational opportunities; social exclusion; length of conflict; "heroic notions drawn by ideology" (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and Armed Conflict, 2008); and a desire to join the cause one's ethnic group are fighting (InterPress Service News Agency, 2008; International Labour Organization, 2003; Landau, n.d.; United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2002). However, these factors are present in many situations where children are not used as soldiers. Because social work views people within their environment, and interventions are those that will work to transform the system as a whole, social workers are able to seek out the answer to why some groups use children as soldiers and others do not. Education concerning the ethics of exploiting children and their lifelong consequences also falls within the rubric of social work values.

There are many areas within the profession of social work that can be further developed to prevent the exploitation of children as soldiers and the care for child soldiers. In order for enough trained social workers to be involved with the issue of child soldiering, increased education for social workers is needed. Uganda, Sri Lanka, and Columbia each have some social work education. However, based on their needs, as well as in more developed countries, social work education needs to become more relevant to the issue. In the short term, incentives could be provided in these countries for individuals to attend a social work program in a nearby country and then return to their home country. Social workers could relocate temporarily to areas of greatest need to assist the children and communities, and also to train local people in working with children and communities. In the long-term, schools of social works should be developed further in order to support the vast need of the people in Uganda, Sri Lanka, and Columbia. Capacity could be developed in local communities through technology, where available. Where technology is available, local people selected for their leadership abilities could be educated through long distance learning approaches, perhaps utilizing the train the trainer models, to teach others in their community.

One area which social workers have a great deal to contribute to the prevention and aftercare of child soldiers is research. There are many questions that need to be researched further. These include best practices for recovery; determining the risk factors of children becoming child soldiers; how to best prevent the use of child soldiers; and determining what causes some groups to seek the use of child soldiers while others do not. The latter issue is central to addressing the largest research question without an answer: What are the root causes of the use of child soldiers? In order to truly prevent the use of child soldiers, this question must be answered.

Policy Statement

In order to address the issue of child soldiers, children's rights as an inherent value must be recognized. One area of international policy where this needs to be done is in the International Labour Organization's definition of "the worst forms of child labor" (International Labour Organization, 1999). This definition needs to include all children who become soldiers, not only those that were obviously coerced into joining or forced to join. Also, the U. S. must ratify the CRC in order to support the international community in combating the mistreatment of children around the world. All countries' national laws and implementation of those laws must reflect the rights of their children granted within that document. The U.S. is no exception.

Another important aspect of the international standards and definitions is the enforcement of those standards, and consequences when those standards are broken. It is strongly recommended that the U.S., under the Obama administration, work with other nations to address concerns about the International Criminal Court. This would not only strengthen accountability for the use of child soldiers, but would also strengthen the many UN conventions that are unenforceable in practice at this point. The involvement of the U.S. should also work to strengthen the public's perceptions of the United Nations in the U.S., as they work with other leaders in the UN to improve and strengthen the body. This will create more avenues through which to explore conflict resolution and immediate international response to many crises, including civil wars that lead to the abuse of children as soldiers.

Last, since economic underdevelopment leads to many of the push factors of children into child soldiering, development assistance in the form of multilateral untied aid to the national governments and to the NGOs that work in their respective countries essential. Poverty and the presence of oppression play a clear role in the development of the conflicts that lead to the abuse of children as soldiers. Greater efforts need to be made to eradicate extreme poverty to prevent this human rights abuse in the future. This is the essence of social work.

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