Why Children Become Soldiers

June 18, 2010

“He should be in school,” said Awil’s commander, Abdisalam Abdillahi. “But there is no school.”

This is a topic I admittedly do not know too much about, so any discussion about it will be academic and speculative.  But I have been reading recently about the problem of child soldiers in the U.S.-backed government military in Somalia, where kids as young as 12 have picked up arms to fight.  A few months ago I took a 10-day jaunt through Myanmar, which has the most child soldiers in the world (though you would never know it, since most of the country is off-limits to foreigners).  There are an estimated 300,000 children fighting in wars throughout the world, and a wide range of circumstances make this possible.

For one thing, countries using child conscripts are usually embroiled in intractable civil wars that never seem to end.  Many of these wars began as ideological ethnic or religious conflicts and, over time, morphed into gangs of criminals fighting over control of land and resources.  The chief correspondent for East Africa, Jeffrey Gettleman, explains the nature of these conflicts:

There is a very simple reason why some of Africa’s bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don’t have much of an ideology; they don’t have clear goals. They couldn’t care less about taking over capitals or major cities — in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. Today’s rebels seem especially uninterested in winning converts, content instead to steal other people’s children, stick Kalashnikovs or axes in their hands, and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts, from the rebel-laden creeks of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this is what you will find.

So in parts of Africa at least, these armed conflicts are really just territory and resource battles between gangs, some of which are affiliated with the government.  It is certainly more complicated than this, but the premise that they are more about money and power than ideology is probably true in most cases.  In these cases, it is easy and cheap to abduct children and conscript them as soldiers.  They are easily manipulated and can be trained to kill without much effort.  The conflicts are self-perpetuating, where one side fights for control of resources, uses the money to purchase more arms and recruit more soldiers, and fights for more resources.  Children are a natural fit for this type of conflict.

The root of the issue has to do with economics.  In a lot of these countries, the population is heavily skewed toward children.  In Somalia, for example, where children fight for both Islamic fundamentalist groups like Al-Shabab and the Transitional Federal Government army, 45% of the population is below 15 years old.  There is an oversupply of young people, and a vast undersupply of opportunities for employment.  This combination makes children particularly susceptible to recruitment by militias, since it offers employment and the chance to part of a group that offers even a basic level of support and camaraderie.  Andrew Revkin describes this principle:

A surplus of young people can be an asset when there is a functioning economy and school systems able to train young workers; development economists call this the “demographic bonus.” But when there is no opportunity, this “bonus” can be exploited by whoever fills the opportunity gap — be it a warlord or extremist group.

Burma

A lack of opportunities creates desperation among young people, increasing their vulnerability for recruitment.  And probably the biggest reason that child soldiers exist is that vicious warlords and repressive governments perpetrate these conflicts.  And when they need soldiers, they take them from the most accessible pool.  A grown man is more likely to resist, but a child can be easily molded into something.  The military junta in Myanmar, which has been engaged in armed conflict with ethnic groups in the northern part of the country, simply recruits by force.  Here is one story from a 15 year-old Burmese recruit:

‘I was recruited by force, against my will. One evening while we were watching a video show in my village three army sergeants came. They checked whether we had identification cards and asked if we wanted to join the army. We explained that we were under age and hadn’t got identification cards. But one of my friends said he wanted to join. I said no and came back home that evening but an army recruitment unit arrived next morning at my village and demanded two new recruits. Those who could not pay 3000 kyats ($3 USD) had to join the army, they said. I (my parent) could not pay, so altogether 19 of us were recruited in that way and sent to Mingladon (an army training centre).’

Here in the Philippines, there is a problem with child soldiers as well.  In the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), infamous for being the home of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a violent Islamic insurgent group, and Abu Sayyaf, the jihadist group with ties to Al Qaeda, children join the ranks at an early age:

The increasing number of children involved in armed conflict is due to a number of factors. They join the ranks because of: (1) psychological reasons (i.e., thrill and excitement); (2) social tension (i.e., peer pressure); propaganda; and (4) forced recruitment or abduction. Armed groups target the emotional, psychological, mental, or physical vulnerabilities of the children, as well as the situations in their families or communities.

Human Rights Watch further observes that children most likely to be recruited are: (1) poor; (2) separated from their families; (3) displaced from their homes; (4) living in a combat zone; and (5) with limited access to education. They also come from communities, which have inadequate social services.

Recruitment of children usually takes place in areas where there is less or no government presence at all. The adolescents are usual targets for recruitment as soldiers. They are trusting and innocent like a child, yet have the strength and stamina of adults.

The Philippines

It is a major problem with a wide network of causality.  Ending the recruitment of child soldiers would probably require overthrowing the governments that use them and providing more employment opportunities for young people, which means improving the education system, the roads, the health care system, access to energy, the supply of food, etc., through a combination of diplomacy, development and military force.  In other words, it is a deeply complex issue with human rights and national security implications.  Everything is connected in this world, and smart development policies need to be part of the solutions.

The pictures in this post come from the photo essay “Planet War” in Foreign Policy magazine

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