The United Nations estimates that 300,000 children around the world are serving in rebel and government armies. Most are unwilling participants, abducted from their villages to serve as soldiers, guerrilla fighters, or supporting roles in armed conflicts in more than 50 countries. Belgian researchers have found that if the youngsters survive their ordeal, they are left with severe psychological wounds.
The U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch says the average child soldier is aged 13-to-17, but some have been as young as eight or nine. They wield weapons in battle, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, and act as spies, messengers, or lookouts.
"Children by the thousands have been literally kidnapped from their homes and their communities, and subjected to the most horrific forms of violence," says Human Rights Watch official Jo Becker. She adds that children typically make obedient soldiers because they are vulnerable and easily intimidated.
"They are forced to commit atrocities against members of their own community, sometimes members of their own family," she said. "The girls are often used as wives by the commanders and subjected to what is essentially sexual slavery. They are terrorized into compliance by being threatened with death, if they try to run away, and even being forced to kill other children who try to escape."
A study by Belgian scholars shows that these youths are left with severe psychological scars. Ghent University researcher Ilse Derluyn and colleagues interviewed more than 300 former child soldiers who had been abducted by the northern Ugandan rebel movement, Lord's Resistance Army. Nearly all of the youth, 97 percent, suffered post traumatic stress disorder after an average of two years in servitude. Ms. Derluyn says their problems were typical of this syndrome, persistent nightmares and trouble sleeping and concentrating that lingered long after their ordeal ended.
"These do not get better with time," she said. "Even the children who returned a long time ago from their abduction still suffer from post traumatic stress reaction."
The Belgian study shows that large percentages of the child soldiers had witnessed killings or participated in them. Seven percent were forced to kill a family member. Many abducted other children and had to loot and burn civilian homes. About half were seriously beaten. One-third of the girls had been sexually abused, and one-fifth gave birth in captivity.
The researchers found that children suffered less stress if their parents were still alive, especially their mother. Ilse Derluyn says reuniting them with their families and previous social networks would help restore their psychological health. But many of the children are not so fortunate.
"A lot of children do not have parents anymore, or one of the parents has died," she said. "Also, they committed a lot of atrocities against their own neighborhoods sometimes, so it is quite difficult to reintegrate them into the neighborhood and the living situation."
The international community has focused on the child soldiering problem in recent years. The 2002 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Labor Organization, and the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child ban the use of children as soldiers. The International Criminal Court defines child military recruitment as a war crime.
But an editorial in the medical journal Lancet, which published the Belgian study, complains that the United Nations Security Council has not sanctioned violators, despite its annual debates on the issue since 1998 and condemnations of the parties involved.
Human Rights Watch official Jo Becker describes some positive steps. She says the United Nations Children's Fund has worked with governments and private organizations to demobilize and rehabilitate thousands of children in Sierra Leone, southern Sudan, Afghanistan and other countries. A special court in Sierra Leone has charged 11 people with the crime of recruiting children during conflict.
But Ms. Becker agrees with the Lancet's editors that sanctions must be widespread. "What we need are concrete actions that show that the legal framework isn't just words on paper," she said. "We do need active prosecution by national courts, as well as ad hoc tribunals and the International Criminal Court. Another thing we need is strong action by the U.N. Security Council that will impose targeted measures against the parties that are responsible."
Ms. Becker says individual nations should also impose their own sanctions against those who traffic in child soldiers.
In Belgium, Ilse Derluyn says she hopes her study encourages progress in this regard. "I hope with this paper that the political agenda is more focused on this problem," she said.