According to U.N. estimates, there are more than 40,000 children under 18 fighting in the Congo. Unless effective measures are implemented soon, children will continue to be unwilling peons in war, their childhood all but destroyed.
UNICEF data indicate that 300,000 children under 18 serve as regular soldiers, guerrilla fighters, porters, spies, sexual slaves and even suicide commandos in conflicts under way in more than 30 nations. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy has indicated that one in four children in the world lives with fear, violence or displacement.
Poverty, lack of education and plain desperation draw many children into armed groups. During the conflicts ravaging Sudan in the 1980s and early 1990s, thousands of boys were lured from their homes with promises of work and education only to be unwillingly thrust into battle. Other children are forcibly recruited, abducted by armed groups.
Research carried out in El Salvador, Ethiopia and Uganda shows that almost a third of the child soldiers surveyed were girls. Because many contemporary wars are waged among ethnic groups in the same country, children can become special targets for violence. After they are recruited, some children are forced to commit atrocities against other people, sometimes even to their own families and neighbors. Through such practices, the children are stigmatized and thus become unable to return to the safety of their homes or communities.
Girls are raped
Who are more likely to be used as child soldiers? Children who don't live with their families, those with little or no education, those from the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society and those who already live in war zones.
Aside from the obvious danger of death, child soldiers suffer from drug addiction, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Girl soldiers are raped and used as sexual slaves by senior officers. As a result of the brutality that they must endure, many child soldiers are left with permanent scars and physical disabilities that hinder their capacity to reintegrate into civilian society.
There have been some positive steps related to the use of children as soldiers. In 1999 the International Labor Organization approved unanimously the ban on employment of those younger than 18 in hazardous work, including prostitution, drug-smuggling and soldiering.
There are currently several projects that help to rehabilitate child soldiers in Mozambique, Angola and Somalia. In Colombia, where there are an estimated 7,000 child soldiers, there is a rehabilitation program implemented with funds from the government and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
To limit or stop the use of child soldiers, international lending agencies should make it clear to governments or rebel groups worldwide that they will not receive aid or international recognition if they enlist child soldiers in armed conflict.
In a report to the U.N. Security Council in December 2002, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan identified 23 parties to conflicts in five countries that involved child soldiers. The report indicated that not only armed opposition groups were using children as soldiers but government forces as well, as in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia.
Unless governments act in a more decisive way, children will continue to be deprived of their most basic human right “that of a peaceful childhood.
Cesar Chelala, MD, writes on public health and human rights. http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/2003/08/27/news/opinion/6624674.htm