More than 300,000 young people under the age of 18 are actively involved in armed conflicts worldwide. Despite international laws prohibiting the practice, children as young as eight, including girls, are recruited in armed rebel groups, militias and even government forces.
According to a United Nations report on children in armed conflict, some military commanders prefer conscription of child soldiers because they are, as the report puts it, “more obedient and easier to manipulate than adult soldiers.” Children are recruited at orphanages and in refugee camps or simply abducted from their homes.
“The rebels came in the night and arrested me. At that time I was eight years old,” says a boy from Sierra Leone who was forced to fight for the rebels who kidnapped him.
Deborah George, an American journalist who covered the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, notes that many of the recruited children had seen their family killed and were persuaded that fighting was the right thing to do. Others, she says, were manipulated in different ways, often through the use of terror.
"I know that children were often - as part of their integration process - forced to commit atrocities relatively soon after they were kidnapped in order to separate them from the community and bond them to the fighters," says Ms George.
"When we refused they would shoot us," confirms the kidnapped Sierra Leone boy. "That’s why we did what we did. I did it – I killed somebody.”
Deborah George says young soldiers in Sierra Leone were also drugged. “That was very, very common. Most of them when they were fighting, were on drugs -- all different kinds of drugs, from marijuana to PCP. There certainly were a lot of drugs available during the war,” says Ms George.
Over 7,000 children were used as soldiers in the Sierra Leone conflict, which ended in 2001. But recruiting children into armed forces has increased worldwide in the past decade or so because arms have become lighter in weight and easier to handle. Peter Singer, author of the book “Children at War”, says that today, children are fighting in three out of every four wars in the world.
“You name the war, they are there, whether it is Afghanistan or Iraq to Myanmar. So it is a global problem and unfortunately it is a global problem that’s growing. It’s spreading almost like a virus. You can see that for example in West Africa where it first started in Liberia. Then groups in Sierra Leone started using child soldiers, then groups in Guinea, then in Ivory Coast, then back in Liberia. And actually, you can find former Liberian child soldiers that traveled as far as Congo, more than 1609.3 kilometers away, to serve in wars there.”
Peter Singer says warlords and rebel leaders have quickly learned there are advantages to using children instead of adult fighters and the practice has spread like wildfire.
“Sometimes these groups are even teaching each other. For example, there is a group in Nepal that first started using child soldiers after joint training with rebel groups from India and the Shining Path from Peru," says Mr. Singer.
Child advocates around the world warn of the consequences of using children in armed conflicts. The practice is not only destructive for children who hardly know any life without war and terror but also for the community which they have left.
“You’ll find 16 or 17 year olds that used to be child soldiers, they may not be able to read, they may not be able to do arithmetic anything more than two plus two, but they can field strip an AK-47 rifle in just a couple of minutes. And so if they don’t get support in terms of demobilization, demilitarization, rehabilitation, education, schooling, etc., then they are lost and they may turn back to violence or those adult leaders may try to take advantage of them again.” The availability of children experienced in warfare perpetuates violence and even civil conflicts, says the author.
International laws ban the recruitment of those under the age of 18 into armed forces. Most countries are signatories, but even governments often break the law. Peter Singer says there are no consequences for ignoring the global statutes.
“For example the UN Security Council recently had another report where they identified the groups that are using child soldiers and yet we haven’t got to the consequence stage of actually holding these groups accountable and not only saying you are doing these bad thing, but these are the things that are going to happen to you because of that, indicting these guys as war criminals, having sanctions against these groups, but also sanctioning the groups that trade with them.”
Last year, the Special Court for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone's civil war, affirmed that the recruitment and use of child soldiers was a war crime. It says it will prosecute the perpetrators. Human rights groups around the world hailed what they called the Court’s "historic decision." Now they say other countries with child soldiers must follow that example.
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