(Photo: Young soldiers from a Ugandan supported Congolese rebel movement group march in an exercise. Via USA.gov.)
The use of children in combat is an ongoing and complex problem in which disarmament, demobalization and reintegration (DDR) programs are falling short. While many might consider the problem of child soldiering old news, consider this: nearly 40 percent of the world’s armed organizations have children in their ranks while more than 300,000 children are currently involved in 30 ongoing armed conflicts throughout the world. These child soldiers are incredibly vulnerable to physical harm, exploitation and psychological trauma. For this reason, the international community should focus on establishing restorative justice models that properly rehabilitate former child soldiers.
DDR is broken into three stages.
Stage 1 – Disarmament: soldiers enter military holding areas where their weapons are secured and surrendered.
Stage 2 – Demobilization: soldiers are discharged from military service and awarded an identity card to validate their exit from conflict.
Stage 3 – Reintegration: through multiple support services and community involvement, soldiers are prepared for their return home.
Apart from often messy implementation and the requirement that the community fully support rehabilitation efforts, DDR faces internal and structural problems. In the disarmament stage, for example, soldiers are typically required to surrender weapons to receive assistance. When children who have escaped their commanders or served in non-combat roles enter holding areas without weapons, they are often turned away. Although this was not the official policy following conflict in Sierra Leone, its widespread practice reduced the number of child soldiers eligible for DDR assistance from 48,000 to 6,800. Worse still, many of these children are unable to receive honorable discharge identity cards, putting them at risk of violence by community members or combatants who may assume that they are still affiliated with an armed group. This is especially true when DDR is attempted in areas where fighting has not come to an end. Continued fighting means children – even those who have gone through DDR – might be forced to rejoin in combat.
If children do have weapons to surrender, they are often given monetary rewards. Following combat in Liberia, for example, children often received 300 USD. Since the child receiving this award has not completed the three stages of rehabilitation, this money often returns to the hands of warring parties (as was the case in Liberia) or is spent on drugs and alcohol. In the eyes of the community, this “blood money” is perceived as a reward for killing and its dissemination can therefore hurt the ultimate goal of reintegrating children back into the community.
Despite the fact that females make up 10 to 30 percent of child soldiers, DDR often discriminates against girls. Many female soldiers who have served as cooks, slaves and in other non-combat roles are turned away. It is estimated, for example, that only 4 percent of the female child soldiers of the Civil Defense Force, Sierra Leone, participated in DDR. Often, child soldiers who are pregnant or have children are also denied assistance, placing these girls at risk of further exploitation and harm.
If the goal of reintegration and rehabilitation is to be achieved, DDR practices must be improved. This can be accomplished by:
Recently, there have been positive steps aimed at improving DDR. These include conducting needs-based assessments with local groups and setting up mentorship programs with community leaders. While many of these improvements incorporate culturally specific practices into DDR, international organizations and NGOs must understand potential negative ramifications of current practices – particularly discrimination and continued violence – in order to enhance the general wellbeing of former child soldiers and the communities to which they return.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC