Protection of Children in War & Disaster
Case Study: Recruitment of Children in Armed Conflict -- Group 8

Dana Barakat, Xheni Shehu and Ayman Yassa

Similarities in the recruitment experience

There are a number of similarities in the recruitment experiences of the three scenarios. We will highlight three of these similarities for the purpose of this brief case study.

First, despite the means of recruitment, all three groups of recruiters are taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of the children, their families and their communities. Government recruiters are taking advance of lack of security, breakdown of family and community structures, lack of understanding of the consequences of war on children, lack of basic needs for children (such as food, shelter, water) and economic opportunities, and the sense of loss of family members. Local defense forces are taking advantage of a sense of lost traditions and practices and of children’s strong bond and dependence on the family and community norms and cultural practices. They are further taking advantage of children and family by luring them in a world of “magical powers and invisibility.” The rebel forces are taking advantage of highly vulnerable children, such as unaccompanied children or children from female-headed household and other vulnerable families.

A second similarity, which is ­­­closely linked to the element of vulnerability, is an element of coercion in all recruitment experiences – some more tacit and some more direct. This is despite some level of voluntarism in the recruitment of armed forces and local defense forces. This element of coercion exists because whether the child (or their families) can truly make voluntary choices at a time of crisis is highly doubtful. Obviously, there will be some situations where the child is old enough to understand the choice they are making and their choice, arguably, may be qualified as voluntary. However, such cases are probably far fewer than what is led to be believed by government or defense forces.

A third similarity is that despite the differences in methods of recruitment, all children are ultimately brainwashed in a culture of violence and survival which has detrimental consequences for their development. They all go on to experience various degrees of violence, either as witnesses or direct participants in it.

Differences in the recruitment experience

There are also many differences in the recruitment experience of these three scenarios. First, it is noticeable that the manners of recruitment are very different between the different groups. The government relies on normal processes of army recruitment, but has broadened that to include children. Here the most visible method is a strong reliance on economic incentives and a higher purpose of serving one’s country and avenging one’s loss. The defense forces rely on spiritual methods of recruitment tapping into perceived loss of tradition and culture. Their methods of recruitment are more grassroots, equating participation in war with a rite of passage. There appears to be very little reliance within this group on economic incentives. And last, the rebel forces rely on sheer force – either threat of it or direct use of it. Their methods are brutal and include abduction, killing of those who protest, and killing of family members. Rebels seek to destroy everything and anything that the children would associate with their childhood. Often, children themselves are forced to commit heinous crimes against other children or their family members.

These different methods of recruitment lead to vastly different experiences for the children. With the government and defense forces, children may feel a sense of pride and identity – belonging to a movement that will serve a higher purpose (defend the country or reclaim lost traditions). On the other hand, children recruited in the rebel forces most likely feel a strong sense of fear and calamity, a sense of hopelessness and solitude, a sense of deprivation and separation from family and community. In other word, they are in a consistent state of fear.

What is the impact on future development of the children recruited?

Because of the differences in recruitment mechanisms, the impact of the experiences on the future development of the children may be very different. Before delving into these differences, however, it is also important to note that some similarities may exist as well. For example, all children to a certain extent have lost their sense of childhood and with it many of the normal developmental stages that children go through. Many of them have lost years of schools and education. Many have internalized survival behavior and may have violent tendencies as a result of what they have witnessed or done. Many have probably little skills that can help them be productive members of society and their communities.

Despite these similarities, there may be many differences in impact. For some children, especially those associated with the defense forces, participating in the war becomes a rite of passage into adulthood, symbolizing a cultural and traditional connection for the children. Their experience is normalized and accepted by their families and communities. For children recruited by the government or defense forces, they may feel a sense of pride in their fighting and participation. In other words, there may be righteousness associated with fighting. Even further, their experience may become part of their adult ideology and cultural identity. Because of these, psychologically, the impact of the war may be less severe than those children who were forced to participate, kill and mutilate. For children fighting for the government or defense forces, rehabilitation and reintegration may be more difficult because of the ideological, cultural and social associations with the fighting and because they believe that their participation and use of violence was justified by a higher purpose. On the other hand, children who were forcefully recruited, may be more eager and motivated to go through rehabilitation and reintegration because such associations may not exist for them, and despite the debilitating psychological trauma that they experience.

Reintegration in the community may also differ for these children. For example, children who were urged by their families to join the government or the defense forces may be able to reintegrate more easily in the community. There may be an element of heroism associated with their participation in the war. On the other hand, children who forcefully joined the rebel forces, may be less welcomed by their communities since they would be associated with the enemy.

The children may also differ in the level of livelihood and social skills they bring after the war. Most likely, children who soldiered for the government may have been able to gain more livelihood skills during their time with the forces, as opposed to children who fought for the rebel forces. Some may have even profited from the war using it as a chance to make money and change the quality of their lives. These children may exude more self-confidence in their abilities and may possess sufficient social skills to make them relatively productive members of society. While they may be more resilient, however, because violence is more normalized for them, they may also resort to violence as a coping mechanism. On the other hand, forced children may continue to live in a state of fear even after they have escaped or have been released – fear of reprisal, fear of non-acceptance by the community, fear of trauma, etc. To conclude, while children fighting for rebel forces may be more willing and motivated to reintegrate and rehabilitate, these process would be much more difficult for them for the reasons discussed above.

What do you think of descriptions of children who “joined voluntarily”?

In order to answer this question, it is important to first ask: What does “voluntary” mean? Is it a narrow definition which simply means lack of force or threat of use of force in recruitment? Or should it be a broad definition by which voluntariness is defined on the basis of available choices that a child and his/her family have prior to making a decision for participation? While most governments usually adopt the narrow definition for purposes of recruitment, the broader definition is most appropriate to assess the voluntariness of a child’s action since they already have limited capacity to make informed decisions.
As mentioned above, there is significant doubt as to whether a child or a family can genuinely volunteer to join an armed force when faced with dire situations. The voluntariness of the choice is rather illusory. How can a child join an armed force voluntarily when they have nothing left – their houses, schools and health clinics destroyed, their family, friends and community lost, and they lack their most basic needs necessary for survival? Participation in an armed force provides children with many of these most basic economic and social needs. How can a child join voluntarily when they follow their families and relatives to the war front – their only structure of support? That is not a choice the child makes, the child merely follows as he/she does in every other situation. How can a child join voluntarily when they are persuaded to do so by family members that lack the knowledge of the devastating psychological and social impact that militarization and exposure to violence will have on the child? If the family can’t make an informed decision, how can we expect that a child will? How can a child already embittered and marginalized by poverty, unemployment, dysfunctional social welfare systems and illiteracy can make a voluntary choice to join the war front? Even children who are looking for stimulation and adventure often lack many of the things mentioned above that again make their voluntary choice doubtful. These children may give different meaning to their experience as a coping mechanism, but their initial choice most likely was anything but voluntarily. How can a child join voluntarily when they are manipulated into thinking that their participation is rooted in cultural traditions and symbolism and are made to think that their participation is a rite of passage into adulthood (something children long and dream of)?

All these questions are raised to suggest that voluntary participation in a time of armed conflict is rarely genuinely voluntary. It is for most a means of survival. And when the only option left is a means of survival for the child and/or family, then there is little choice left.

In what way do the case studies aid our understanding of the local situation?

The three different cases help us understand that the situation of children and their experiences is not monolithic or statist. The children from the same country and same conflict can have vastly different experiences of recruitment and participation. They will have different relationship with the forces depending on the motivational incentives used to recruit children. Because of these the impact that the war has on them is also very different. Due to these variations among different communities and groups of children, it is important that response mechanisms must be tailored to different context. Even within the same country, it would be very unwise to develop a cookie-cutter approach to programmatic interventions for rehabilitation and integration children participating in armed conflict.