The internationally agreed definition for a child associated with an armed force or armed group (child soldier) is any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or group in any capacity.
It not only refers to children used in hostilities but also includes boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes.
(Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, 2007.)
In many cultures, children have been involved in military campaigns. In antiquity, it was customary for youths in the Mediterranean basin to serve as armor bearers, aides, and charioteers.
It's said the Romans used children in war, and Plutarch implied that such regulations were unwise and cruel. Children had to be at least 16 years of age to be used in warfare.
During WWII, teenagers volunteered in Germany and were accepted as reserve troops at first until casualties saw the need for them to become regulars in Hitler's army.
It's said that a whole Panzer brigade was equipped with youths aged 16-17 from Hitler's Youth Brigades. According to history, the German ethic of the boy soldier encouraged boys to join the fight. Some as young as 12 were drafted into service. Child soldiers saw extensive action and were among the fiercest and effective German defenders in the Battle of Berlin.
The most-recent example of children being used as soldiers comes from South Sudan. Last week, the Voice of America reported, "the army of South Sudan signed a deal with the United Nations to release all remaining child soldiers. That means the world's newest nation could be removed from a list of countries that use children in the military."
A U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy announced last Friday in Juba the deal could bring about the release of 2,000 child soldiers. The Sudan People's Liberation Army, SPLA, has released three thousand children since a peace agreement was signed in 2005.
The SPLA was a guerrilla movement that fought a civil war with Sudan that ended when the agreement was signed.
While this announcement by the U.N., that Sudan will release child soldiers, can be considered a victory in securing the release of the children, still other nations are using children as soldiers.
It's reported that 36 countries have used child soldiers in conflicts since 1998. Children are deliberately targeted because they are more easily manipulated and can be indoctrinated to perform crimes and atrocities without question. "Some children have been forced to commit atrocities against their families and communities.
Child soldiers are often killed or wounded, with survivors often suffering multiple traumas and psychological scarring. Their personal development is often irreparably damaged. Returning child soldiers are often rejected by their home communities," according to the U.S. State Department.
As many as 6,000 children in Central African Republic have been recruited by armed groups and forced to commit atrocities along religious lines in a conflict that is at high risk of spiraling into genocide, U.N. envoys said last Wed., according to Reuters.
The vast majority of child soldiers have been kidnapped and forced to fight in conflicts around the world. It's estimated over the last 15 years 10,000 children have been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) around Gulu in northern Uganda, alone, according to Child Soldiers.org.
UNICEF estimates that more than 300,000 children under 18 are currently being exploited in over 30 armed conflicts worldwide. While the majority of child soldiers are between the ages of 15 and 18, some are as young as 7 or 8 years of age.
Mary, a 16-year-old demobilized child soldier forced to join an armed rebel group in Central Africa had this to say about her brutal experiences as a child soldier:
I still dream about the boy from my village who I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me, saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying.
The BBC reports a former child soldier who was taken when he was 13 said:
When they came to my village, they asked my older brother whether he was ready to join the militia. He was just 17 and he said no; they shot him in the head. Then they asked me if I was ready to sign, so what could I do - I didn't want to die.
These are children who were forced to commit these violent acts, they are the victims of evil adults bent on exploiting them.
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