Today is an important day if you care about the welfare of children. Advocates have named February 12 “International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers” to highlight one of the worst forms of child labor. It’s hard to imagine that in 2013 the use of child soldiers is alive and thriving, but the BBC estimates that there are 300,000 child soldiers internationally. This number includes children of elementary school age who are handed automatic weapons and asked to kill, as well as others who are used for slave labor to support armies. Since January 2011, child soldiers have been used in at least 19 countries.
Many of the children suffer the worst forms of psychological warfare from their captors, who in many cases break them down by forcing them to kill or maim their friends or family. Many girls are sexually assaulted and forced to serve as sexual slaves. Many child victims are given drugs to keep them compliant. Their years of enforced service often produce intense psychological scarring that makes it hard to return to their communities. In some cases, they are shunned by their villages. Hear one girl’s compelling story in this YouTube video.
The Child Labor Coalition has tracked dozens of stories regarding the use of child soldiers over the last year and engages with its members to perform advocacy to reduce the use of child soldiers. Most recently, the warfare in Mali led to the recruitment of child soldiers, including children as young as 12. In early January, the United Nations decried the use of child soldiers in the Central African Republic, and in India, reports emerged that the militant group, the Garo National Liberation Army was using children in a variety of roles to support combat, including possibly the use of armed children. In early December, 2012, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on two “March 23 (M23)” leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for allegedly using child soldiers.
Not all the news has been bad. In June 2012, Burma made significant strides in reducing its use of child soldiers when it released an action plan to tackle the problem. In 2012, Yemeni authorities said they were committed to stopping the use of children in the military.
The challenges governments face to end the use of child soldiers are often formidable, however. A February 6th Huffington Post blog by Jake Scobey-Thal noted that despite some progress, child soldiers are still being used in Burma and cited the International Labour Organization that their numbers may be as high as 5,000.
Two members of the Child Labor Coalition, World Vision and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have been leaders in the effort to pressure the US government into abiding by a congressional law, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which prohibits military aid to countries that use child soldiers. They’ve also provided a valuable service with early warnings when civil strife reaches the point that children begin to be dragged into military conflicts as they have been recently in Mali, Syria and the DRC.