The Children Of War
Some news stories really hit hard and the latest reports of atrocities and child armies in current conflict areas I am finding particularly disturbing. But one piece of reporting on how a child’s commitment to education can defy hardship gave a glimmer of hope and light in the battle zones of Africa.
It could be your 14-year-old son. It might be your brother, your cousin, the little guy that delivers your newspapers, or even your neighbor’s girl who walks your dog. Now imagine that 14-year-old brandishing a semi-automatic rifle, with an ammunition belt strung across the shoulder and a machete hanging from the hip. You probably don’t need to see the weapons; the dead-eyed hardened look of a child who has been to war will tell you all you need to know. Child soldiers are back in the news. The health and well-being of all children should be at the heart of civilized society, but this is a problem that won’t go away.
In the UK, you can vote at 18 and legally go into a bar and buy a drink. At 17 you can drive a car. At 16, with your parents’ consent, you can join the military, but cannot be sent into combat situations until you turn 18. International law in this area is confused, but in principle the United Nations Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict confirmed that, as in the UK, children under 18 should not be sent to war, but allows for children as young as 15 to be recruited voluntarily. The Geneva Convention has the same age as a cut-off point for recruitment and combat. Forcible recruitment at this age is another matter and is in general totally against International Law.
Recent violent conflict in Africa has shown how these laws become irrelevant on the ground where desperate armies will do anything to survive or win. Fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) has been savage. Almost a million people have been displaced. At the end of 2013, the UN reported that it believed as many as 6,000 child soldiers were being used in the conflict. The UN also said that it had positive confirmation of the deaths of 16 children in the capital Bangui in what seems to be a series of revenge attacks targeted at children. Souleymane Diabate the UNICEF representative in CAR said “We are witnessing unprecedented levels of violence against children. More and more children are being recruited into armed groups, and they are also being targeted in atrocious revenge attacks.” As the combatants are taking over hospitals and schools, UNICEF is calling for an immediate ban on the recruitment and targeting of children and on “attacks against health and educational personnel, and the use of civilian spaces such as schools and hospitals for military purposes.” UNICEF has had some success in securing the release of child soldiers and recently announced they had negotiated the freedom of 23 children aged between 14 and 17, including 6 girls. In the last year, they have managed to free over 200 from the various armed groups in the conflict.
In the bitter armed struggle in South Sudan, too, the UN has identified the widespread use of child soldiers, though numbers are hard to quantify. Here, as in CAR, children’s lives are already blighted by disease, food and water supply problems, displacement, and lack of health and education facilities. However, a UNICEF report this month demonstrated the determination of young children to maintain some kind of normality in the worst of circumstances. The “Primary Leaving Exam” should have been taken by thousands of children on December 16th 2013, but as fighting spread across the capital this became impossible. With UNICEF’s help, the exams were re-scheduled for the week of January 13th and most children were able to sit the exams. The organizers even managed to arrange for hundreds of children displaced by war and living in UN compounds to take the exam. Although this is an exam to qualify for secondary school, children as old as 19 need to take it due to constant disruption to schooling over the years. Many had lost family members, their homes, possessions and, of course, their books when they had to flee the fighting, but at least they now have hope that one day they can move onto secondary education and a better future.
Image Credit: BeRad