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For teachers - ages 12-14 Civic Education: Activity Sheet: Teacher's Resource Sheet

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For teachers - ages 12-14 Civic Education: Activity Sheet: Teacher's Resource Sheet

14 October 2006

Teacher's Resource Sheet: Selected passages from Guy Goodwin-Gill and Ilene Cohn, Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflicts (Oxford, OUP, 1994)

The Changing Face of War

Increasingly, war and conflict are marked by the numbers of civilian deaths. In time of conflict, children risk recruitment or attraction to the military for many reasons:

  • Schools that might otherwise occupy their time are destroyed or closes
  • fields they might otherwise plant are off-limits because of fighting or mines
  • relatives and neighbours are arbitrarily arrested, abused, or tortured.

Often a gun is a meal-ticket and a better alternative to sitting at home afraid and helpless. Today, even small boys and girls can handle common weapons like assault rifles.

More children can be more useful in battle with less training than ever before.

But children are not always forced to become soldiers. Sometimes, as in Liberia, they are among the first to join; or as in the Palestinian intifada in the Israeli occupied territories, they are the primary catalysts of violent strife. The motivation lies in the very roots of conflict, in the social, economic and political issues defining children's lives. Confronting these larger concerns may be the only realistic road to preventing youth participation in otherwise unavoidable hostilities.

Forced Recruitment

In El Salvador through 1991 and even now in Guatemala, the armed forces fill their ranks, taking young men out of buses and cars, away from market-places or churches. Formal conscription processes, if they exist, are by-passed.

Why do they forcibly recruit? Manpower shortages and class discrimination are among the reasons. Army salaries rarely lure even the poor, while the young from the wealthier families are considered free of subversive tendencies, and just don't travel the country buses targeted for recruitment sweeps.

While the government has also used force, the Mozambican resistance (RENAMO) consistently and systematically practised forced recruitment, even preferring children to adult combatants:

'Kids have more stamina, are better at surviving in the bush, do not complain, and follow directions'.

But they are also brutalized, 'programmed' to feel little fear or revulsion for the atrocities they committed. RENAMO would take a boy back to his village, forcing him to kill someone he knew; the community saw what he had done, and the door to ever returning to his village was closed tight.

Involuntary recruitment is not necessarily a matter of physical threats or intimidation. No one knows exactly why 12,000 homeless Sudanese boys trekked the wastes of Sudan, Ethiopia or Kenya; or how 'voluntary' is the enlistment of Tamil youth. Subtle and not so subtle pressures are at work, and all the harder to eradicate.


Children are influenced by their social milieu and by their stage of development. Parents, families, peer groups, schools, religious communities and other community-based institutions have their sway. And how a child understands or integrates his or her experiences also works its effect.

The militarisation of daily life, patrols and curfews and the celebration of soldiering and military death, create a climate, a mentality of violence.

Children who become soldiers have often witnessed physical violence, death squad killings, disappearances, torture, detention, sexual abuse, displacement, destruction of home or property. They seek revenge, or to continue the struggle, or to find another family, to take control of events.

Most of the 3,000 or so children in the Ugandan NRA had been orphaned during the Obote army's rampages through the countryside.

They were taken in by the army when their parents died. They looked to the army as surrogates, as parents.

But that was often secondary to the fact that they had personally lived through the murder of family, friends, and community, in an experience beyond remedy and certain to influence the rest of their lives.

Children and their Experiences

How children explain and evaluate their personal experiences influences their decision to join one or another armed group. Adults have different explanations. Leaders and devotees of armed opposition groups, like Liberia's NPFL, the Afghan Mujahedin, El Salvador's FMLN, and the Sri Lankan LTTE often claim they could not prevent zealous children from joining voluntarily in support of 'the cause'.

Some children do profess loyalty to religious, nationalist, or political ideology, but too many instances of evident indoctrination negate the idea of voluntariness, and case doubt on the extent to which youth of a certain age have the capacity to think rationally about concepts like ideology and nation.

  • Young Palestinians throw stones to 'prove' they are not collaborators;
  • Liberian boy soldiers believe fantastic promises of future rewards;
  • Young Tamils want to learn to ride a motorcycle;
  • Many want the adventure, or an alternative to their present;
  • The Afghan Mujahedin concentrated on 'arming their children spiritually and emotionally for the battles that lie ahead'.
  • In Iran, young men flocked to the recruitment centres, fired by the picture of Iraqis as unbelievers without divine protection.

How communities 'value' the reasons for conflict is often central to children's own perceptions. Where community violence is prevalent, rational decision-making processes or non-violent options for conflict resolution may be overridden. Children see a violent response to structural or political problems as the 'only' choice.

Ironically, some young people feel more secure inside an armed opposition movement than outside, with other orphans, street children, refugees and displaced civilians. But war is a false environment, replacing freedom of thought and opinion with ideology, around a final purpose which is to create chaos and ruin, despite the superficial emphasis on comradeship, order and discipline. War is a moral lie.

Children can also pick up 'mixed messages'.

  • Parents who are proud of their activist children, yet terrified for their safety;
  • Parents who support the armed opposition, while actively discouraging their own children from joining.

Conditions of Participation

The Henry Dunant Institute Study suggests that the only military-strategic rationale for using children as soldiers, rather than adults is that they are expendable and exploitable.

  • Iranian children were in waves over mine fields.
  • Mozambique's RENAMO and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge used terror and physical abuse to turn out fierce killers.
  • Uganda: 'In the beginning, they mostly helped around the camps. With time the kids pressed; they wanted to get guns and fight for the cause. Most of the time they were refused. But then, later, some went into battle'.
  • Sri Lanka: Far from home and a cyanide capsule to take if wounded or captured.
  • Zimbabwe: Children can move about freely and are not instantly suspected of spying or supplying. They are an important link to the civilian population; if children co-operate, their communities can hardly do otherwise.

For their own protection, children should not wear uniforms, carry arms, move with troops, live in bases which are legitimate military targets. But when children's realities are defined by war's causes and by-products, such as displacement, separation, loss of parents, lack of food and shelter, should we not anticipate the choice that some of them will make?

The Consequences of Participation

Children face detention, for example, for subversion under national penal law. In international armed conflicts, they may become child prisoners of war.

Several hundred Iranian children spent several years in POW camps in Iraq, their return home apparently of no interest to their government.

In the late 1980's hundreds of young Ethiopians, forcibly recruited by the government, were captured by the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front. Like the Iranian boys, some spent years in the camps; and like the Iranian government, the Ethiopian government showed no interest in their fate. Unlike the Iranians, however, they did not benefit from POW status under the Third Geneva Convention, since the war was not characterised as an international armed conflict.

Psychosocial Consequences

'Every child', says the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is entitled to receive such 'protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being' and States are obliged to 'ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child'. In addition, States must protect children from all forms of mental violence or abuse, and strive to ensure that victims of armed conflict have access to rehabilitative care.

  • After a month in a camp in Thailand, one 15-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre began hearing two voices arguing with each other inside his head. The first, a Khmer Rouge leader, was angry because the boy deserted; the second, a Buddhist priest, said that even when he died he would be punished for what he had done.

As child soldiers lay down their guns, they rediscover killing as moral transgression.

  • A 10-year-old abducted by RENAMO, forced to kill civilians and soldiers, suffered flashbacks in which events from the past came flooding back at unexpected moments to haunt him.
  • Kabanda was nine when he watched UNLA soldiers kill his parents: 'The man who kill my mother, they make me angry. Me, I decide to go in the army. Me, I decide to beat them. If I find them, I kill'.
  • 13-year-old Stephen: 'I know these people they killed. This one, when I would come home from school and I be hungry, he would give me food. Now I remember. Those men who killed my friend, they should be killed.
  • Liberia, 15-year-old Ram Dee: 'I am a rebel. I fought off the trouble. I took in the bubble. I said double trouble. I'm a man who's not stable'.

Families, communities, and entire societies suffer the repercussions of children's participation in armed groups or forces, including collective punishments, house demolitions and forced displacement.

Families and communities may also reject former child soldiers, either because they have committed serious abuses or because they fear violent retribution for their acts. Many NGOs anticipate high levels of popular resentment towards former combatants in Liberia, given the level of atrocities.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

Adopted by resolution no. 44/25 of the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 November 1989

Article 38

  • States Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child.
  • States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities.
  • States Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, States Parties shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.
  • In accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.