Case Study One: Recruitment of Children

Although the situations of children in the various case studies differ by education, socioeconomic status, cultural and spiritual beliefs, the common thread that ties them together is their active participation in violent conflict at a young age. In all three scenarios, the children’s involvement was a direct result of some sort of vulnerability. In Case A, economic and pragmatic factors seemed to drive children’s decision to join the government forces. While in this scenario children were not forced into the military, they had lost their houses, schools, and in some cases had suffered the losses of friends and family. They therefore joined the fighting to secure their basic needs ranging from food to security and protection. Similarly, in Case C, vulnerability led to children’s involvement in the fighting. In this case, children were forcibly recruited and targeted, because they were unaccompanied, living in households where there was nobody to protect them or where a female-headed household also left them vulnerable to the risk of recruitment. In Case B, vulnerability takes a different form. Children were subject to their family’s or community’s cultural and spiritual norms, which encouraged their participation in fighting forces. Though not explicitly stated in the prompt, one gets the impression that community members feel their culture is threatened and/or slipping away from them. This perceived threat could create a more collective vulnerability, making community members willing to make sacrifices in order to save their culture.

Another similarity is that joining the fighting forces may have led to an improved quality of life—at least in material terms—for the children involved. In Cases A and C, children were living in poverty, had lost friends and families, and were in situations in which the social and political infrastructure did not provide protection. Entry into the military can provide support, protection and basic needs such as food and shelter. In Case B, children may gain acceptance or family respect by taking part in what is viewed as a noble fight.

While children took part in fighting forces in all three scenarios, there are distinct differences in the recruitment and enlistment processes. In Case A, while the government did not “forcibly” recruit children, it seems that perhaps corners were cut regarding child protections, or that there was a lack of information or regard for recruitment laws. Children joined of their own volition, for protection, for adventure, and because the current situation did not provide stability or future prospects. In Case C, it seems children were experiencing similar circumstances, but were forcibly taken. In Case B, enlistment into fighting forces is given a positive spin, considered an initiation experience that is something to be proud of.

We expect the differing recruitment experiences would have a significant impact on how children experience their fighting experience, and later return home and integrate into their formal lives. In Case A, those who joined voluntarily may generally take a more pragmatic approach to life and survival (feeling their participation was a product of temporary circumstances in which they found themselves), and therefore may fare “better” upon return. Since it was somewhat institutionalized into the culture, these children who joined may not be seen as such an outlier among their peers and therefore may not be targets of stigma or discrimination.

Case B illustrates how impressionable children are and their constant desire to gain approval from family, friends and the wider community. Because their parents actively encouraged them to join fighting forces, this could make it easier or more difficult for children to return and be integrated back home, depending on their experience as soldiers. An individual child’s reintegration could be significantly affected by whether s/he was on the winning or losing side of the conflict. For example, for children whose side “won,” the community’s acceptance may not be an issue. On the contrary, these children may be welcomed home as heroes. However, they would still have to deal with adjusting to the realities of non-war life and learn conflict resolution skills that do not involve violence. On the other hand, children who began the process as enthusiastic participants but were negatively affected by the violence they experienced may blame or resent their families and/or communities for pushing them into joining.

Case C may represent the most severely traumatized children of all three scenarios; the abduction experience is damaging in and of itself, and the acts the children were forced to commit were completely against their will. The victimhood and the violence—which the children both experienced and perpetuated—may create residual anger and resentment toward their families or those who failed to prevent their being taken. These children will need extensive care in order to reintegrate effectively, with particular attention paid to their psychological health. As the Mozambique case demonstrated, the community should play a key role in deciding what the most appropriate way of welcoming the children back.

Although a child may “join voluntarily” there are many factors that contribute to this decision, which are likely beyond the realm of the child’s control. A child’s decision to enlist is largely informed by socioeconomic circumstances, or a desire to be involved in something, to feel empowered when in reality they lack power and authority. Children may have joined government forces “voluntarily” but loss of loved ones, destroyed homes and inability to attend school likely contributed heavily to this decision. There simply may have been no alternatives or joining the forces could have been the “least bad” option.

These three scenarios help illustrate the fact that even within the same conflict, children involved with armed groups can have very different experiences. The circumstances that lead a child to become involved in the first place can play a significant role in determining a) what his/her experience of participating will be and b) what specific needs will need to be addressed when s/he begins the reintegration process. These variations need to be taken into account when planning a strategy for reintegration.