Author: Emmons, K.
Globally, it is estimated that, at any one time, around 300,000 children under the age of 18 are currently serving as child soldiers. Up to one fourth of these children can be found in the East Asia and Pacific region, and many more have served as soldiers in countries no longer facing armed conflict. As children grow older, the destruction is perpetuated, and the promise and potential of each new generation is lost. This report is an effort to draw attention to the reality of child soldiers in this region and to demonstrate the need for our urgent response. In these pages, current and former child soldiers express their ideas, thoughts, feelings and fears. It is a record of their voices, rather than a search for numbers.
Purpose / Objective
With this report, UNICEF seeks to raise awareness and shed light on the specific nature of child soldiering in the East Asia and Pacific region. By placing the issue on the agenda, the report will, ultimately, identify ways to reduce and end the involvement of children in these conflicts. Above all, it attempts to let the child soldiers "talk" to decision makers, child rights' advocates, the media, youth leaders, military personnel and the general public.
As a qualitative evaluation of the problem of child soldiering in the East Asia and Pacific region, this study will also serve as a valuable resource for policy and programme planning by governments, inter-government and non-government organizations, as well as civil society. By documenting the experiences of children abducted or recruited by armed forces and groups, it provides powerful evidence that children should never be forced or, under any circumstance, permitted to trade their childhood for a uniform and a gun. This study specifically addresses the following key questions:
What is the family background of the children involved with armed groups?
How did they become child soldiers?
What did they experience as child soldiers?
What do they experience as a consequence?
What are their views and thoughts about the future?
For the purposes of this study, a child soldier is defined as anyone younger than 18 who has participated in armed forces or groups -- either on a volunteer basis or by coercion -- directly or in a supporting function. Participation includes fighting, guarding, cooking, or serving as a porter, messenger, spy or sex slave.
This report is based on in-depth interviews with 69 current and former child soldiers in six countries in East Asia and the Pacific. Six children were interviewed in Cambodia, 13 in East Timor, 4 in Indonesia, 20 in Myanmar (on the Myanmar-Thailand border), 17 in Papua New Guinea (Bougainville) and 9 in the Philippines. While children from these conflict areas were selected for interviews, other conflicts in the region are also known to use children. The number of children interviewed varies according to access and other security concerns.
All the children interviewed became soldiers before the age of 18, with an average age for recruitment of 13 years. The youngest soldier interviewed was 11. The average age at the time of the interview was 18. Most of the boys and girls interviewed were associated with non-State entities, rather than regular government armed forces, because of difficulties in obtaining access to children serving with government forces. Slightly more than half of the interviewees are children in post-conflict situations (Cambodia, East Timor, Bougainville/PNG), who are no longer involved in armed conflict. Only two girls were interviewed for this report, a sample too small to provide detailed information on girls involved with armed groups. Some information on female child soldiers, however, does emerge in interviews with boys, who comprise the majority of child soldiers in this region.
Key Findings and Conclusions
While the experiences of individual child soldiers in the East Asia and Pacific region are varied, the conflicts have some common features. They are often geographically localized, generally of low intensity and directly affect only a small proportion of the population. Many of the conflicts are rooted in ethnic or religious identities. The warring parties employ common strategies, including deliberate terror and threats against civilians. The use of children by these armed groups -- as well as by some governments -- is widespread. Exactly how many children are being used as soldiers is difficult to determine. Many of the children are abducted or recruited by armed groups hiding in hills and jungles. Some of the children are used only periodically and regularly return to "normal" life in their villages. More often than not, children serving with armed groups are to be found in areas that are inaccessible or impossible to monitor.
Many young people believe the environment they left behind was a greater violator of their rights. Whether fleeing hunger, physical and/or sexual abuse, loss of family or destruction of their community, a number of children spoke of finding refuge and support in armed forces or groups. Several boys mentioned poverty as a factor that influenced their decision to join an armed group. Some reported that fellow soldiers and officers treated them better than their own families. A number of children shared stories of concern expressed by military officers for their education. Some found a sense of power by association with an armed struggle. Awareness of child rights and child protection among communities and armed groups can influence how children are treated and can, eventually, contribute toward efforts to stop the use of child soldiers.
Boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 14 years face the highest risk of being recruited. The sample represented in this study indicates that boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 14 years are at the highest risk of joining military groups. As the interviews show, 58 per cent of those who joined did so "voluntarily". This has to be understood in a context where children are not exercising free choice but are, instead, responding to economic, cultural, social and political pressures. Only 23 percent were physically coerced. Special efforts are needed to better understand the special needs of this age group, and to develop appropriate alternatives and life goals to help prevent children from becoming involved with armed groups.
Child ex-combatants feel the loss of childhood, especially the opportunity for education. Most of the young people interviewed expressed a strong desire for education. Many spoke with regret about the loss of their education when schools were destroyed or they were forced into war. An overwhelming majority expressed determination to continue their studies. The importance of education as a key component in the prevention of recruitment needs to be urgently addressed.
Not all child soldiers are boys. Although only two of the 69 people interviewed were girls, reference was made by a number of children to the involvement of females in armed forces and groups. Girls are predominantly used as cooks, gardeners, cleaners, medics and for sexual purposes. Some girls also become "fighters" and participate in combat. There are numerous reports of sexual violence involving girls. This abuse needs to be more systematically investigated and addressed. It is essential that actions are taken in response to the special needs of girl child soldiers.
All children suffer the psycho-social consequences of participating in armed combat. Bad dreams and nightmares were frequently mentioned as plaguing the children, both during their involvement with armed forces and groups and after their return to civilian life. The children spoke of a persistent fear of death and their memories of killing, of witnessing the violent death of family and friends and of being tortured. For some children, the nightmares recur for years. Other long-term effects include difficulty in controlling anger and violent response, alcohol or drug abuse and difficulty concentrating at school. Some say they do not like the violent person they have become. Psycho-social services -- culturally adapted to the specific needs of the child -- must be provided. Children should be involved in the process of demobilization, including forgiveness rituals, as appropriate, and peer counselling. A specific plan to promote education and vocational training is essential to their successful reintegration into community life.
Ratify the Optional Protocol on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and other legal instruments relevant to the protection of children in armed conflict.
Ensure that national laws are compatible with international legal standards.
Provide training to military and non-state actors on child rights and protection, as well as gender sensitivity.
Promote systematic demobilization of child soldiers in all countries and provide support for reintegration, with an emphasis on access to education and vocational training.
Build capacities for appropriate psycho-social support and response to ex-child combatants.
Identify and promote alternative, non-violent ways for boys and girls to contribute meaningfully to the cause of their people and communities.
Develop prevention strategies to reduce the factors that make children vulnerable to "voluntary" recruitment.
Ensure participation -- where such participation can take place in safety and dignity -- of children affected by armed conflict, including child soldiers, in all research, advocacy and programme planning activities.
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Child Protection - Child Labor