“The Social and Cultural Context of Child Soldiering in Sierra Leone”



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Paper for the PRIO sponsored workshop on Techniques of Violence in Civil War

Held in Oslo, August 20-21 2004


“The Social and Cultural Context of Child Soldiering in Sierra Leone”

Susan Shepler

University of California at Berkeley
“Violence is a slippery concept -- nonlinear, productive, destructive, and reproductive. ... Violence can never be understood solely in terms of its physicality -- force, assault, or the infliction of pain -- alone. Violence also includes assaults on the personhood, dignity, sense of worth or value of the victim. The social and cultural dimensions of violence are what gives violence its power and meaning” (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004: 1)

This paper explores the issue of the use of child soldiers as a technique of violence in civil war. To answer the question, why do factions use or abstain from using child soldiers,1 we need to start from the cultural construction of childhood. When we in the West think about child soldiers, we tend to do so with our Western notions of what childhood is and should be. We think we know what “child” means and we think we know what “soldier” means, but these words mean something different than our expectations in the context of various conflicts around the world. Our sense that child soldiering is worse than adult soldiering comes from our beliefs about childhood, beliefs built on a modern ideology that sees children as innocent and separates childhood as a special time.

As many others have pointed out, we need anthropological methods to get at the historical and cultural underpinnings of the reasons to use or abstain from using child soldiers (Boyden 2001; Kostelny and Wessells 2000; Legrand 1999; Peters 2000; Peters, Richards, and Vlassenroot 2003; Newman 2004). Pederson et al., in a review of the literature on children and armed conflict, conclude that “Qualitative data production should shift away from routine use of techniques derived from rapid or participatory appraisal techniques into analysis more informed by anthropological and social psychological insights on social praxis and child psychology” (2001: 16). 2

To answer these kinds of questions, anthropological methods are required. That is, it is important to consider one location in depth before making generalizations about broader patterns. Therefore, in this paper I focus on only one country, Sierra Leone. The essential question for me is: how does child soldiering make “sense” in Sierra Leone.

I do not claim that the phenomenon of child soldiering is completely explained by the cultural practices surrounding youth in Sierra Leone, nor is this an attempt to make reasonable the participation of children in war. Instead it is an effort to understand historical continuities and cultural practices and meanings surrounding children and youth that make the participation of children in conflict somehow legible. In this paper I describe how various practices surrounding youth contributed to the recruitment of children and youth into the fighting forces, and also determined, in part, their participation in the war.

This paper is based on ethnographic research for my Ph.D. dissertation between 1999 and 2001.3 I started my fieldwork in Interim Care Centers for former child soldiers and other separated children. I then spent time in communities around the country that were struggling to reintegrate populations of former child soldiers from different fighting factions. In addition to participant observation, I interviewed former child soldiers, NGO workers, teachers, and families about their experiences during the war and about their plans for the future.

First, I briefly review the literature on the reasons for child soldiering and give a cursory background to the conflict in Sierra Leone. After that, I look further into four aspects of youth widely studied in West Africa—child labor, child fosterage, apprenticeship, and secret society initiation—and show how in Sierra Leone they were continuous with the recruitment and participation of children in the fighting forces. These continuities are based on my own analysis and are apparent to me as an outsider, yet to most Sierra Leoneans they are too taken-for-granted to be cited as explanations. So, next, I explore how Sierra Leoneans themselves explain the phenomenon of child soldiering through arguments about economic, political, and social breakdown. I look at the history of the participation of groups of young men in political violence of various sorts over the years, a history that gives Sierra Leoneans a ready language for talking about groups of “troublesome” young men. I also touch on Sierra Leonean notions of the nature of youth as inherently easily controllable, and yet liminal and dangerous. Finally in this paper, I point to what Sierra Leoneans found horrifying about child soldiers. Their specific distress can only be understood through their own notions of youth, and has to do with the inversion of age hierarchies, the breakdown of extended family ties, the effects of improper training and initiation, and the future of the nation. I end with a discussion of why fighting factions might abstain from using child soldiers.

Why Use Child Soldiers? A Review of the Literature


There are many, mainly NGO-sponsored, studies of child soldiers (Cohn and Goodwin-Gill 1994; Legrand 1997, 1999; de Berry 2001; Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2002; Bennett, Gamba, and Merwe 2000).4 Child soldier studies almost always begin from a human rights framework, and focus mainly on estimating the numbers involved, recounting individual horror stories, describing the legal instruments against the use of child soldiers, and evaluating reintegration programming.5 At this point, much more is known about rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers than about why child soldiers are used by insurgent movements or governments in the first place.

To the extent that they do talk about reasons for use, common explanations fall into the following categories:



1. Demographic

It has been suggested that large youth cohorts, so-called “youth bulges,” make countries more unstable in general, and thus more susceptible to armed conflict (Urdal 2004).6 There is also a simple argument of supply, in countries where fifty percent or more of the population is under eighteen, there is a ready supply of children for recruitment.



2. The changing nature of warfare.

Various scholars have noted the changing nature of modern warfare, in which wars are fought less and less by regular armies and in which civilians are more and more the targets of violence. Children are caught in the middle of both these trends. In addition, as put by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, “The widespread availability of modern lightweight weapons enables children to become efficient killers in combat.”7



3. Poverty.

There is also a sense that many children involved in warfare have no other options, as this selection of excerpts from several child soldier-focused NGO websites makes clear:

“While some children are recruited forcibly, others are driven into armed forces by poverty, alienation and discrimination. Many children join armed groups because of their own experience of abuse at the hands of state authorities.”8

“Others join armed groups out of desperation. As Society breaks down during conflict, leaving children no access to school, driving them from their homes, or separating them from family members, many children perceive armed groups as their best chance for survival. Others seek escape from poverty or join military forces to avenge family members who have been killed.” 9

“The overwhelming majority of child soldiers come from the following groups: children separated from their families or with disrupted family backgrounds (e.g. orphans, unaccompanied children, children from single parent families, or from families headed by children.); economically and socially deprived children (the poor, both rural and urban, and those without access to education, vocational training, or a reasonable standard of living); other marginalized groups (e.g. street children, certain minorities, refugee and the internally displaced); children from the conflict zones themselves.”10

4. Characteristics of “the” child.

Finally, there are arguments put forth regarding the characteristics of the child: in particular that children are easily intimidated and easily indoctrinated.

“Physically vulnerable and easily intimidated, children typically make obedient soldiers.”11 “Both governments and armed groups use children because they are easier to condition into fearless killing and unthinking obedience; sometimes, children are supplied drugs and alcohol.”12
There is an element of truth in all of these explanations, what has come to be the conventional wisdom on child soldiers. However, the conventional wisdom is not without problems and ideological biases. The demographic argument begs the question, why then has war not taken place in locations with similar youth bulges? The small arms argument is countered by the reality that in Sierra Leone, for example, most of the violence was carried out not with guns but with everyday tools like machetes and fire. With respect to the poverty argument, it is clear that it is not only street kids who join fighting forces. Indeed sometimes it is family ties that lead a child to war. The idea that children living in desperate situations will turn to violence takes away the agency of children. The Sierra Leonean scholar Yusuf Bangura, in his retort to Paul Richards, asked why the majority of youth, including those in desperately poor situations, did not join the military or rebel movements (Bangura 1997). Finally, understandings of “the” child do not necessarily match understandings of the nature of childhood in the local context (i.e. children in some contexts may not be seen to be innocent or weak).
Background to the Sierra Leone Conflict

Before I continue, a brief introduction to the civil conflict in Sierra Leone is in order. Sierra Leone, a former British colony, is a small country on the West Coast of Africa with great diamond wealth and a post-independence history of political corruption. The civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) is familiar to Western observers for the media portrayals of terror tactics carried out by combatants against a powerless populace. The main fighting factions have been the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, the Sierra Leone Army portions of which at one point joined the rebels in overthrowing an elected government, the locally organized Civil Defense Force (CDF) militias—often known as Kamajohs13—growing out of traditional hunting secret societies, and the international peacekeepers first of the regional West African coalition and then of the United Nations. The course of the war was confusing, with coups and counter-coups and shifting alliances. In addition to murder, rape, and looting; amputations by machete were carried out by youth recruited for just such acts. By the end of the conflict, a full 75 percent of the Sierra Leone population reported being displaced at least once during the war (Abdalla, Hussein, and Shepler 2002). Today, according to the most recent Human Development Report by the United National Development Program, Sierra Leone is the country with the lowest quality of life in the world (UNDP 2004: 142).

The conflict in Sierra Leone, one of many seemingly similar conflicts in the region, is a battle over resources within the context of a post-colonial “weak state” (Reno 1997a, 1997b). Some have pointed to the international trade in diamonds and weapons as the most important element to understanding the war (Smillie, Gberie, and Hazleton 2000). However, the underlying issues are both local and international in character. In terms of local factors, many observers have understood the war in Sierra Leone as a crisis of youth, arguing that it was a lack of opportunities for education or any kind of future that made legions of disaffected youth ripe for recruitment (Richards 1995, 1996; Abdullah et al. 1997; O’Brien 1996).

Now that the decade long civil war in Sierra Leone has come to an end, some forty international and local non-governmental organizations are working there to detraumatize and reintegrate an estimated 7000 former child combatants (DeBurca 2000; Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2002).14 Even now, accurate numbers of children who have gone through formal demobilization are hard to come by. In 2000, the UN reported that approximately 1700 underage recruits had entered disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs. Some of those went back to the fighting forces during the events of May 2001. At the end of October 2001, UNAMSIL reported the disarmament of 3,340 child soldiers since May 2001 (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2002: 83). Also, some of those who left the ranks of the RUF were later re-recruited into the CDF. Moreover, although many girls were abducted to serve as fighters, sex slaves, and “wives” to commanders or camp followers, they make up only 8% of the total number of children released and demobilized since 1999 (UNICEF 2002). Clearly, it is difficult to get an accurate number of children involved in fighting, or an accurate number of children demobilized.

For the rest of this paper, I will focus exclusively on the use of child soldiers in the conflict in Sierra Leone.15

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