Child Soldiers in Colombia
Child involvement in armed conflict is a harsh reality, although the media often considers it a niche phenomenon with respect to many other international matters. According to estimates, the number of children soldiers around the world today amounts to more than 300,000, but this is only a statistical number. Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America are areas where there is the greatest use of minors in war contexts. The prevalence of child soldiers in Colombia is an issue that requires significant attention.

Child soldiers are often in areas that have very unstable governments and prevalent rebel organizations. Additionally, these areas often implement military investments aimed at maintaining stability at the expense of economic development plans, subsequently leading to other countries cutting them out of international trades. Meanwhile, these governments are frequently unable to deliver even the most essential services resulting in inadequate or absent health care systems, very high levels of unemployment and the lack of education systems. Colombia is no different with a prevalence of unrest and child soldiers.

The Beginning of Child Warfare in Colombia

The Republic of Colombia stands out in this context not only for having the world’s highest crime levels but also for the increasing rate of children involved in military actions. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups in addition to government armed forces, forcibly recruit children of every age, many as young as 8 years old. Statistics estimate there are up to 14,000 child soldiers now fighting in opposition groups in Colombia; although, it is a practice that has been going on for more than 60 years.

The preferred targets for recruitment are inevitably young people from the poorest neighborhoods of large cities or the more desperate rural areas as they do not have access to basic education and vocational training, and are therefore without many prospects. Furthermore, the recruitment takes place with false promises, but more often through coercion, under the threat of violence to these children and their families. Unfortunately, joining those corps does not represent an escape to the threats for those children that, with little to no training, must act as front liner shields, conduct executions, participate in suicide missions or make and transport explosives. In this context, the gender difference is a thin line and the differences in roles between males and females become smaller and smaller as the age of recruitment falls.

According to estimates, female child soldiers make up 40% of the total of child soldiers globally and it seems that militias reserve the hardest tasks for them. Not only do female child soldiers across the world carry out the tasks reserved for boys but many also end up as porters, spies, medical aides and even child brides and sex slaves.

Cause of Child Soldiers

To understand the causes of child soldiers in Colombia, it is necessary to frame the country’s political background. Colombia’s troubled political past dates to 1948 when the murder of liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán caused a war between liberals and conservatives. More than a decade of growing instability led to the establishment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Those paramilitary groups later converged in the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) and continued the fights for 20 more years, wreaking havoc and death in the country and kidnapping political leaders. It is among these paramilitary groups that the practice of child exploitation for various purposes began. In conclusion, on June 23, 2016, FARC and the government signed a ceasefire showing commitment to building a better future for Colombia.

Five years later, however, political stability still seems far away, and with it, the tragedy of boys and girls used and abused. In November 2019, the Colombian government enforced a national action plan along with other accountability measures like Case No. 07 of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace aimed to prevent recruitment and sexual violence against children in the country. Despite these measures, according to the latest Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, paramilitary groups like FARC continue to forcibly recruit younger boys into their militias without punishment.

Combating the Problem

Luckily, especially in the last decades and thanks to the mobilization of the Colombian government, many nonprofit organizations directly support the cause against child soldiers in Colombia and multiple other poor countries. The way they are doing this is by not only granting populations access to essential services but also by building playgrounds and schools and promoting access to work. One organization that is helping children is Misiones Salesians, which began in Madrid in the 1970s and has reached 130 countries today. It provides international aid to promote the economic and social progress of various countries, thus contributing to eradicating the root causes at the base of child exploitation. Furthermore, Missioni Don Bosco Onlus, which began in Turin in 1991 and is a continuation of the pioneering work of the Italian humanitarian, has created 4,469 schools and professional training centers to help approximately 1,140,000 boys around the world.

To bring an end to children in warfare, the Colombian government must continue to define ever more stringent policies and accountability measures aimed to discourage the recruitment of child soldiers. In addition, on an international level, it is necessary for governments to collectively establish and impose sanctions against those who refuse to ratify the relevant international agreements and commit such crimes. In a time when governments around the world seem to be coming to terms with the reality of facts on several matters, it remains crucial not to forget the capital importance of foreign aid plans from developed countries in support of those causes that may not have a direct or immediate return on their economy or society, but that represents a considerable opportunity for collective progress.

– Francesco Gozzo
Photo: Flickr

Child Soldiers in Syria
In June 2021, the United Nations released its yearly 2020 report on children in armed conflict, confirming the ongoing recruitment of children by various Syrian militant groups. These groups include the Syrian National Army, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and other Syrian armed opposition groups. By June 2021, militant groups recruited almost 840 children to work as child soldiers in Syria, among other roles, meaning child soldier numbers will likely increase by the end of the year.

Child Soldiers in Syria

With conflict raging since 2011, these groups turn to child populations to manage their shortage of combatants. By exploiting children in impoverished communities, groups use adults and other child victims to coerce and manipulate children into joining the armed forces. The child soldiers in Syria become spies, combatants and checkpoint guards, among other roles, enduring sexual exploitation and harsh military punishments. By using children as combatants, these groups continue to violate international laws with few repercussions.

Syrian Democratic Forces

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has a long history as a critical perpetrator of recruiting child soldiers in Syria. In 2019, the SDF signed a United Nations Action Plan intending to prevent the use of child soldiers, making it appear as though the SDF was attempting to adhere to international law. Under this plan, anyone younger than the age of 18 would be unable to join the SDF.

However, the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center reported that the SDF continues to recruit young boys and girls, some as young as age 11. Additionally, a U.N. report in April 2021 explains that the SDF and its branches are responsible for about 35% of confirmed child recruitments in Northern Syria.

Due to the United Nations Action Plan and international pressure, the SDF is increasingly reuniting recruited children with their families, but only after those specific families put constant pressure on the SDF. Since the creation of the SDF’s Child Protection Office, families have complained about the issue of child soldier recruitment 150 times. However, as of March 2021, the SDF has only demobilized 50 children. In December 2020, the SDF held a press conference, reuniting 16-year-old S. Jam Harran and 15-year-old G. Muhyiddin with their families.

Law No. 21 – Child Rights Law

On Aug. 15, 2021, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad presented Law No. 21 to regulate child rights and welfare throughout the country. The law prohibits the practice of trafficking children, including the use of child soldiers in Syria. The government will take action in response to reports of such practices but does not mention specifics in this regard. While this legislation seems like a significant step in the right direction, many groups, such as the Syrian Accountability and Justice Center, are skeptical about the law’s true ability to end the militant groups’ use of child soldiers. This is due to the existence of a vast number of groups that recruit children, including the Syrian government.

Addressing the Issue of Child Soldiers

Despite the skeptics, the new Syrian legislation on child rights and welfare is a promising step for children throughout the country. Enforcing these new laws nationally will take time, but various groups are working to alleviate the current child soldier situation until then.

UNICEF is responsible for aiding more than 8,700 children following their release from armed forces globally through counseling, education, medical services and safe living arrangements. These rehabilitation and poverty-fighting efforts allow for proper healing from trauma, allowing these children to become functioning members of society. Additionally, UNICEF specifically aids Syrian children, thus impacting communities directly by assisting in medical care, education and improving living situations.

In reducing the number of child soldiers in Syria, the investment by wealthy nations through humanitarian aid may be the most powerful tool as those countries could positively influence local dynamics by helping to lift populations out of extreme poverty. Armed groups have a more difficult time recruiting educated children from stable environments. Nonprofits like Save the Children work to aid impoverished child populations. Save the Children establishes programs and services for families to develop economic stability, preventing child exploitation by increasing the standard of living.

Because children are one of the most at-risk populations, militant groups often use them to sustain extreme military operations through indoctrination and community approval. With emerging Syrian legislation and organizations tackling the issue of child soldiers in Syria, the future of Syrian child welfare could be moving in a positive direction. These efforts combined with international advocacy and education on the issue of child use by armed forces could significantly change the lives of children in Syria.

– Hannah Eliason
Photo: Unsplash

child soldiers in MyanmarFor half a century, Myanmar has struggled to reduce its number of child soldiers. Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar has a long history of using children in armed conflict, which began when the country gained independence in 1948. In 2002, Human Rights Watch listed Myanmar as the country with the highest number of child soldiers. Though Myanmar has taken action to reduce this, the number of child soldiers in Myanmar is still disturbingly high, requiring greater intervention.

Previous Use of Child Soldiers

According to the Child Soldiers Global Report 2001, 20% of Myanmar’s army was made up of children younger than 18. Although Myanmar’s legislation does not establish compulsory military service laws, it does require each district to meet a recruitment quota. District authorities that fail to meet the quota often receive fines. Hence, to meet the quota, many underage children are coaxed into joining the army through financial rewards or prestige. Other times, the army abducts children from public areas, forcing them to become soldiers. The highest number of recruited child soldiers in Myanmar occured between 1990 and 2005 when the military junta was in power.

During this time, Myanmar received several on-ground assessments by the Committee of Experts of the ILO, followed by recommendations to revise the Village Act and the Towns Act. The Committee requested that the government amend these Acts to comply with the Forced Labor Convention of 1930. Hence, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by Myanmar in 1991.

After several concerns raised by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch verified that Myanmar had approximately 70,000 child soldiers in 2001. Myanmar’s government responded to international concerns in a letter to the U.N. Security Council in 2004. In the letter, the government demonstrated no interest in making any legislative amendments nor any intention to prosecute local authorities for forced labor and child abuse by stating that “the Myanmar Armed Forces is an all-volunteer force and those entering military services do so of their own free will.”

Gradual Measures to Reduce Child Recruitment

Finally, in 2005, four local officials received prison sentences for the illegal imposition of forced labor after supposedly recruiting child soldiers. In 2009, several rebel groups such as the Chin National Front signed unilateral deeds pledging to stop recruiting child soldiers.

In 2012, Myanmar signed the Joint Action Plan. This committed the government to work alongside the U.N. to prevent child recruitment. Following the Plan’s implementation in 2012, which established stronger age assessment procedures and the adoption of military directives prohibiting the recruitment of minors, 956 children and young people were released from the army. Further improvements occured in 2015 when Myanmar signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding the use of minors in armed conflict.

Since then, Myanmar’s government and the U.N. have launched several public awareness campaigns, also establishing a hotline so that citizens can report cases of recruitment of minors. As a result of the continuing decrease in child recruitment and Myanmar’s efforts to protect children, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres removed Myanmar from his annual “list of shame,” which names countries that have committed grave violations against children.

The Need for More Action

Despite Myanmar’s recent efforts to decrease the number of child soldiers, in 2021, the United Nations verified the recruitment and use of 790 children in the previous year. With 56 children dead and 17 children abducted, the U.N. believes Myanmar will return to the “list of shame” unless the government follows U.N. recommendations, including:

  • Release children using the framework of the Joint Action Plan
  • Make the 156 pending cases of suspected minors a priority among national courts
  • Prosecute those who are guilty

With 10 armed attacks in national schools in 2020, the United Nations also strongly recommends that Myanmar endorses the Safe Schools Declaration, which requires states to commit to safeguarding schools and universities from armed hostilities.

Existing efforts as well as implementing U.N. recommendations will help to fully eliminate the use of child soldiers in Myanmar, protecting the well-being of children across the country.

– Carolina Cadena
Photo: Flickr

Child Poverty In SyriaFor the past decade, Syria has been the center of a brutal civil war. As a result, millions of Syrians face the everyday threats of violence, hunger and disease that wartime poverty brings about. Those most vulnerable to the effects of poverty include Syria’s children. A closer look at child poverty in Syria provides insight into the lives of Syrian children.

10 Facts About Child Poverty in Syria

  1. Roughly six million Syrian children rely on humanitarian assistance. Syrian children are among the most vulnerable groups in the Syrian civil war. The war has affected more than 11.1 million Syrians, almost half of whom are children.
  2. Children are unable to attend school. The civil war greatly fuels child poverty in Syria. As parents struggle to afford to send their children to school, many teachers are unpaid and destitute school buildings are collapsing. Nearly 2.5 million Syrian children are unable to attend school. This number does not include the 750,000 displaced Syrian children in nearby countries who also have no access to education. According to World Vision, the Syrian conflict has “reversed two decades of educational progress.”
  3. More than half of all Syrian children suffer from hunger. An estimated 60% of the nation’s children are suffering from hunger and 28% endure stunting as a consequence of malnutrition. The percentage of Syrian people suffering from food insecurity is currently the highest it has ever been since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. With 6.2 million children currently living in hunger, the numbers are only rising, having increased by roughly 35% from November 2020 to February 2021.
  4. Child labor is increasing. Faced with the threat of extreme child poverty in Syria, many school-aged boys drop out of school to support their families. These boys regularly work in unsafe situations for little pay. The research study “Survey on Child Labour in Agriculture in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon: The Case of Syrian Refugees” provides statistics on Syrian child labor. The 2019 study concluded that about 70% of Syrian refugee “children between 4 and 18 years old” were employed, “with an average age of 12.9 years.” Additionally, about 75% of these children worked in the agricultural sector. In this sector, about 30% of working children have experienced injuries.
  5. Boys are targets for child soldiers. As boys drop out of school to support their families, they are at higher risk of being recruited as child soldiers. With no income to provide for their children, many families resort to sending their young boys for training as child soldiers, believing that it is the best option. In 2021 alone, almost 840 children were recruited as child soldiers, among other roles, with 797 of these children being boys.
  6. Child marriage is rampant. Many families resort to child marriage to solve their economic situations. Sexual abuse of young girls also runs rampant in crowded refugee camps. Desperate to save their daughters from “child trafficking and sexual exploitation” and unable to economically provide for their children, many families arrange marriages for teenage girls. Out of girls aged 15-19, about 3.8% give birth every year.
  7. Weather has significant impacts. Millions of displaced and homeless children in Northwest Syria face brutal winters. Their only shelter from the harsh cold is often a tent or severely damaged and unsafe buildings that serve as emergency shelters. Roughly 75% of all Syrian children killed in 2020 came from this part of the country.
  8. COVID-19 exacerbates poverty: The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated child poverty in Syria. In addition to the 11.1 million Syrians already in need of urgent humanitarian aid, an additional 1.1 million Syrians have found themselves in poverty as a consequence of the pandemic. COVID-19 has also caused the gross domestic product to fall by up to 15% in the nation’s nearby countries, meaning that Syrian refugees seeking refuge in neighboring countries have fallen further into poverty.
  9. Infrastructure is failing. Only 53% of hospitals are currently in service, greatly adding to child poverty in Syria. Since the start of the war, more than 25,000 children have been killed, a number that is only increasing due to limited healthcare services and lack of access to clean water.
  10. Children are vulnerable to diseases. Poor sanitation caused by a lack of infrastructure, resources and clean water makes Syrian children vulnerable to cholera and other diarrheal diseases. The lack of accessible healthcare means many children miss their regular health checkups. Extremely cold weather in the northwest part of Syria also makes children susceptible to pneumonia.

Addressing Child Poverty in Syria

To address the issue of child poverty in Syria, UNICEF has sent humanitarian assistance on the ground. UNICEF’s efforts focus on children’s education, health and sanitation, among other goals. In 2020 alone, UNICEF “screened 2.6 million Syrian children and women for acute malnutrition,” improved water services for 3.2 million people and vaccinated roughly 2.6 million children against polio. UNICEF also “supported 2.2 million children with education services in formal settings.”

While the conflict in Syria continues, vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected. The efforts of UNICEF ensure the protection and well-being of millions of Syrian children, reducing child poverty in Syria.

– Caroline Bersch
Photo: Unsplash

Child Soldiers in YemenHuman rights groups are addressing the issue of child soldiers in Yemen. Houthi groups reportedly recruited and trained children for war beginning in 2014. Since then, hundreds of child soldiers in Yemen have died or experienced injuries.

Houthi Modus Operandi

Houthi groups utilize school and other educational facilities to train and recruit children as soldiers. Lectures at these facilities emphasize violence and Houthi ideology. Their purpose is to compel the children to join their fight and adopt Houthi ideas as their own. Once recruited, authorities assign the children various tasks, ranging from guard duty to direct armed conflict. Those who do not perform well or attempt to defy the Houthi face various forms of punishment including beatings, food deprivation and even sexual assault.

Protests from Concerned Groups

Humanitarian groups such as the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor and the SAM for Rights and Liberties denounced the Houthi child recruitment drive and called on the Houthi to cease it. The groups argue that the very act of conscripting child soldiers in Yemen violates the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute that forbids this war crime. They urge the United Nations Security Council to refer the Houthi’s actions to the International Criminal Court. The humanitarian groups want a U.N. special representative to visit Yemen and further assess the situation.

The CRUCSY Program

In September 2018, the special United Nations agency known as the International Labor Organization (ILO) initiated a program known as Countering the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Yemen (CRUCSY). The ILO developed this program in conjunction with the United States Department of State.

The CRUCSY program has multiple aims. It strives to provide a solution to the immediate problem of child soldiers in Yemen by addressing its underlying root causes. Furthermore, it hopes to prevent this situation from reoccurring. The program helps reintegrate child victims back into Yemen’s various governorates so that children can lead more stable and peaceful lives. The ILO also set up training facilities and services for the children. Additionally, the ILO teaches the older, legal-aged children marketable vocational skills to help them find employment.

As of February 21, 2021, the ILO CRUCSY program created three youth-friendly reintegration spaces and four youth clubs. Moreover, the program coordinated with local communities to provide training guides for community leaders. Lastly, the program has been offering counseling, support and vocational skills training for child soldiers in Yemen.

UN Action

The United Nations has also made progress in helping child soldiers in Yemen and rehabilitating them. From 2014 to 2020, the Office of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG CAAC) communicated and coordinated with the Yemeni government. It also helped various humanitarian coalitions and the Houthis address the issue of child soldier recruitment.

In addition, the SRSG CAAC implemented action plans to establish child protection units, end violations against international laws protecting children and prevent violations altogether. The office’s efforts led to the signing of a handover protocol in April 2020, resulting in the release of 68 child soldiers in Yemen. As of March and May 2021, child protection workshops and training efforts have continued.

– Jared Faircloth
Photo: Flickr