This week, Somali government officials agreed to begin taking steps to end the recruitment of child soldiers. The Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, and the al Shabab militant group, are cited by the United Nations for using child combatants.
The agreement followed a meeting Wednesday between TFG officials and Radhika Coomaraswamy, U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict. She says the use of child soldiers in Somalia has been widespread.
“Well, it’s extensive. Every armed group in Somalia practically has child soldiers, except maybe the peacekeepers. The actual numbers I hesitate to say because we just can’t estimate,” she said.
She met with the Somali president, prime minister and minister of defense, who agreed to work closely with the U.N. on the issue.
“What we agreed on was…that there would be focal points in the government that will work on the issue of children in armed conflict. And that the TFG will enter into an action plan with the United Nations to release children that are in their ranks. And that they allow the U.N. to come and verify whether there are more children. And to also work with UNICEF on the reintegration of those children,” she said.
Coomaraswamy said it’s much more difficult to get al Shabab to stop using child soldiers.
“What we are trying to do in that case, of course, is to work though interlocutors. But also through the community level also to try to influence them. But I can’t say they’re having that much success,” she said.
She said al Shabab recruits on the community level by extorting, threatening or intimidating families to turn their children over to them. She says they also take them from schools or lure them through radio broadcasts.
The U.N. special representative also visited a camp in Mogadishu where al Shabab defectors or fighters who surrendered are held. Among them were 37 former child soldiers. Coomaraswamy described her visit to the camp as depressing.
“We met a young boy,” she said, “with a bullet still in his head. He was very young. He was about 11 at most or 12. And he had gone through full training, taken part in combat, shot in the leg. But finally he escaped and was taken by the TFG and put in Marino Camp.”
UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund, has programs to help reintegrate former child soldiers back into society. These include psycho-social support and returning them to school. The International Labor Organization also provides skills and livelihood training.
Coomaraswamy said efforts are also underway to end the use of child soldiers in the world’s newest country, South Sudan.
“Well, in South Sudan we have an action plan with the SPLA. And I must say that the SPLA in Juba and around the capital I think is child (soldier) free. But the remote regional commanders still I think have child soldiers. But the U.N. has agreements to go into SPLA camps and to verify whether there are children. Then of course there are the sort of ethnic-based militias. That’s much more difficult. And I think there we still have to see how we can make headway,” she said.
While some NGOs estimate there are hundreds of thousands of child soldiers around the world, she said there’s no way to be sure.
“No, the number is not known now. Earlier numbers were estimated purely on the rolls in Africa in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But now, of course, we’re finding child soldiers in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Iraq and some of the new wars. So, I don’t think we have an estimate. It would be very difficult to estimate,” she said.
Despite that, Coomaraswamy believes that with enough effort, the use of children soldiers can be brought to an end within 25 years.
The special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict says welcomed the TFG’s commitment to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.