Their stories are harrowing to say the least. They bear scars: physical, emotional and psychological. When they try to return to their communities they are treated like vermin. And oftentimes they have to find they own way out of a deadly morass that they never created for themselves. In common parlance, they are referred to as child soldiers but in fact they are child victims of war.
A child soldier is considered to be any person under the age of 18 who is a member of or attached to government armed forces or any other regular or irregular armed force or armed political group, whether or not an armed conflict exists.
According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, “child soldiers perform a range of tasks including participation in combat, laying mines and explosives; scouting, spying, acting as decoys, couriers or guards; training, drill or other preparations; logistics and support functions, portering, cooking and domestic labour; and sexual slavery or other recruitment for sexual purposes.”
In many parts of the world where there is conflict children are victimised and forced to commit horrible acts or undergo untold suffering. Because of stolen childhood, many of the children become social misfits and are therefore rejected, stigmatized and ostracised. The consequence is that such children often turn to what they know best: violence. The problem of child soldiers is most critical in Africa, and hundreds of thousands of children have had their childhood innocence snapped due to conflict.
This begs the question: whose responsibility is it to take care of children that are used as objects of war. Is it right for society to dump such children because they are perceived to be a menace to society. Is it fair to make children that are forced to become soldiers to pay for sins that they never willfully committed?
Given the odds at hand, society has a clear responsibility for rehabilitating child soldiers. There must be mechanisms put in place in post conflict countries to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate child soldiers into society.
Psychosocial support for child soldiers must be an imperative of the highest order. Because many of the child soldiers will have missed out on educational opportunities, it is critical to either provide them with an education or hands-on skills that can enable them to function independently within society. Girls, in particular, will most likely have special needs as some may have been raped or impregnated. Girl soldiers are frequently subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence; and may therefore require special attention.
“The rehabilitation process includes drug withdrawal and psychological adjustment but also recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which include nightmares, flashbacks, aggressiveness, hopelessness, guilt, anxiety, fear and social isolation,” says Michael Steele of the Vision Journal.
All those responsible for employing child soldiers must be liable to prosecution. Anyone found guilty of committing the heinous act of abusing children in such a manner must be given the harshest of sentences. Destroying human lives is an unforgivable act. There must be an increased momentum to ensure that governments around the world sign up and adhere to instruments to stop the use of child soldiers. The mobilization of society against the use of children soldiers must be instituted in many parts of the world. All said, a society that fails to invest in the rehabilitation and reintergration of its child soldiers only sows into its fabric the likelihood of future violence and war.