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Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Soldier's helmet on street Monrovia, Liberia

A soldier’s helmet lies open on the street of Monrovia, Liberia in 2008. “Tough childhoods are not uncommon in Liberia, West Africa,” says CNN. Today the region has thousands of former child soldiers who fought in the second Liberian civil war from 1999 to 2003. Today they continue to heal from the violence they witnessed as children. Image: Stefano De Luigi/Open Society

(WNN) UN Geneva, SWITZERLAND, WESTERN EUROPE: Answering the hard questions and growing needs for child soldiers trapped in militias working inside national government forces across the globe, the United Nations is stepping up to help those children who are the most vulnerable.

In a new UN launch called ‘Children, not soldiers‘ human rights and advocacy agencies including UNICEF  are putting increased pressure on countries who continue the use of government sponsored child soldiers. The new UN launch hopes to completely stop the use of child soldiers worldwide by 1016. Human rights advocates now outline that abuse of children who have been tricked, coerced or kidnapped into militias is ongoing. A majority of children, including both boys and girls, who are now part of national and independent militias continue to be forced into ‘joining up’ under harsh and often disaster environments.

“All children deserve protection, not exploitation.  They belong in school, not armies and fighting groups. Children should be armed with pens and textbooks, not guns,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the launch of Children, not soldiers.

Today children throughout the world continue to face what the UN describes as “grave violations” under armed conflict in 22 separate countries, including Syria, a region that has been enlisting children for the past 3 years into the Syrian conflict.

“In hospitals outside Syria, I met children recovering from gunshot wounds, explosion and shrapnel injuries. Their parents kept repeating how lucky they were to have made it across the border because, they said, access to even the most basic healthcare inside Syria was nearly impossible. I met young boys approached to join the fight, and others who felt it was their duty to take up arms. Everywhere I went, mothers and fathers had the same request: help us send our children back to school,” recently outlined Ms. Leila Zerrougui UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

“Three million are deprived of the chance to get an education, many for the third year in a row,” Zerrougui continued.

Struggling under what most often includes extreme hardship under exposure to violent armed campaigns, children trapped in militias can be scared psychologically as well as physically. Many suffer under flash-backs, anxiety, hostility, depression and guilt years following their time as a child soldier.

Those children who suffer from extreme poverty, and become separated from their parents during conflict, are often the ones most likely to be forced to enlist in roaming armed militias. While their designation may be different, girl soldiers often have specific jobs within militias. In addition to being an armed combatants themselves, girls are most often expected to carry supplies, set up militia camps and provide food for a militia. But they most often are also in greatest danger of being raped by other male soldiers and militia leaders who they travel with each day during armed campaigns.

“Child soldiers are recruited in many different ways. Some are conscripted, others are press-ganged or kidnapped, and still others are forced to join armed groups to defend their families. In many instances, recruits are arbitrarily seized from the streets, or even from schools and orphanages, when armed militia, police or army cadres roam the streets, picking up anyone they encounter,” says a United Nations and UNICEF report highlighting the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

“Hunger and poverty may drive parents to offer their children for service; armies may even pay a child soldier’s wage directly to the family. And parents may encourage their daughters to become soldiers if their marriage prospects are poor,” continued the UNICEF report.

Efforts by human rights agencies, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, by writing letters and creating petitions have been deeply involved in the fight to stop the use of child soldiers, including both boys and girls worldwide. But the issue of abuse of children trapped in war and conflict must be more than just talk, says UN Special Representative Ms. Leila Zerrougui.

It’s important that global leaders act to bring on-the-ground action to stop the use child soldiers in all regions, say advocates.

“Often they are abducted at school, on the streets or at home,” says Amnesty International.  “Others enlist ‘voluntarily’, usually because they see few alternatives. Yet international law prohibits the participation in armed conflict of children aged under 18. It means that in reality girls and boys illegally and under force, participate in combat where frequently they are injured or killed.  Others are used as spies, messengers, porters, servants or to lay or clear landmines. Girls are at particular risk of rape and other sexual abuse,” continues Amnesty International.

Girl child soldiers North Kivu, DR Congo

In 2007 these former girl child soldiers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo came together for a ceremony honoring them for finishing a rehabilitation program. Image: Endre Vestik

Under the United Nations Geneva international agreements 152 nations have now formally agreed to follow the ‘Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict‘, but national regions that refuse to become members of the Protocol continue to wreak havoc in the lives of children younger than 18.

“Recognition of a universal age limit of 18 by the international community has still not been achieved,” says the ICRC – International Committee of the Red Cross which outlines that all children are protected under international law.

The challenge for the UN in the push to stop the use of child soldiers also requires that all Protocol member nations discourage children, especially boys, from romanticizing war and conflict. But there are some countries who have not always followed this part of the Protocol, including the United States.

In 2008 the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union outlined that the U.S. was unfairly trying to reach and recruit children 17-years-of-age and younger using the armed combat video training game called “America’s Army.” This was done through programs that were brought into public High schools as a recruitment tool to encourage children to enroll in the United States Army after the age of 18.

“Department of Defense instructions to recruiters, the U.S. military’s collection of information on hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds, and military training corps for children as young as 11 reveal that students are targeted for recruitment as early as possible. By exposing children younger than 17 to military recruitment, the United States military violates the terms of the Optional Protocol,” outlines the 2008 ACLU report on the topic.

“Wartime enlistment quotas have placed increased pressure on military recruiters to fill the ranks of the armed services,” continued the 2008 ACLU report.

Although Myanmar/Burma signed a 2012 action plan with the UN concerning actions to identify and stop the use of child soldiers, the country has not signed on to the Protocol though, nor has the region begun the work necessary to follow through to protect children from inclusion in conflict as combatants. In what human rights activists call an “over-reaching act” the UN Representative in Myanmar did recently invite the Burmese government to feel free to send some its own troops to join United Nations peacekeeping services.

This has alarmed human rights agencies and advocates, including HRW – Human Rights Watch who just sent a letter outlining their concerns to the Office of the UN Secretary General. The current use of child soldiers in Burmese Armed Forces is considered a violation of international law, says HRW. The Burmese military’s poor record on rights and civilian protection is profoundly at odds with the standards that UN peacekeepers are expected to defend around the world, they continued.

“The government committed to ending its recruitment of child soldiers and releasing all children from its armed forces by the end of 2013. However, the government has failed to meet these commitments,” said HRW in a very recent March 13, 2014 letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

“Since the action plan was signed, very few children have been released from government forces, and the UN has continued to document the Tatmadaw’s recruitment of children. Seeking Burmese forces’ participation in UN peacekeeping operations while it maintains children in its ranks undermines both the UN’s reputation and your Special Representative’s efforts to end this shameful practice,” continued Human Rights Watch.

UN Special Representative Zerrrougui has, on the other hand, been working on all fronts to stop the increase in the use of child soldiers in conflict zones, especially in Syria where the use of children as combatants has been well documented.

“We need to step up our collective efforts; review best practices; learn from what works and what doesn’t,” says the Special Representative during an October 2013 conference in Kampala, Uganda organized by War Child International (Holland), an agency that works to advance the efforts for peace through advocacy for children caught inside war.

“If we are seeking to secure sustainable programs and policy recommendations that have a lasting impact this is absolutely essential,” Zerrougui added with emphasis as she highlighted the importance of working directly with local communities to reach the goal to help children trapped by war.

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Jimmie Briggs, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Man Up Campaign, moderated a discussion on child soldiers involving Ishmael Beah, former child soldier and author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Jocelyn Kelly, Director of the Women in War Program, and Leila Zerrouigui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, United Nations. Topics covered include the split between the “on paper” response to the child soldiers issue as opposed to the situation on the ground and how international recognition has changed the nature of conflicts involving child soldiers. Underappreciated gender-related aspects of the issue were also addressed.

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For more information on this topic:

A ‘Call to Arms:’ A Gender Sensitive Approach to the Plight of
Female Child Soldiers in International Law
,” Priya Pillai, American University Washington College of Law, March 2008;

The Voices of Girl Child Soldiers,” Yvonne E. Keairns, PhD, University of Essex, modified September 2011;

Healing Child Soldiers,” WHO – World Health Organization, May 2009;

Adult Wars, Child Soldiers,” UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund, modified June 2013;

The Six Grave Violations Atainst Children During Armed Conflict: The Legal Foundation,” UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, last modified February 2014.

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WNN – Women News Network founder Lys Anzia believes strongly in the power of women to transform the world. As a human rights journalist with a career that began in public radio broadcasting through an internship at Pacifica radio station WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C., Anzia has a strong dedication in bringing the highest quality journalism available to the public. In addition to Anzia’s featured stories on WNN, her written and editorial work can also be seen on WUNRN – Women’s UN Report Network, Vital Voices, Women’s Media Center, World Bank and UNESCO publications, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reliefweb, The Guardian News Development Network and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, among others. Today over five million Google Search pages list one or more WNN articles monthly.

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