Understanding and Addressing the Phenomenon of Child Soldiers

Linked with Forced Migration Online FMO.

Published on Refugee Studies Centre, by Ah-Jung Lee, January 2009, 46 pdf-pages.

(Paper submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Science in Forced Migration at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford).

Introduction: In the past 10 years, the phenomenon of ‘child soldiers’ has attracted enormous media attention and has also become a policy priority in the humanitarian field. In the global policy discourse, a ‘child soldier’ is commonly defined as ‘any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members’ (Cape Town Principles) …

… 6 Conclusion: Re-thinking the Phenomenon of Child Soldiers (page 32):

This paper has critically examined the global humanitarian discourse on child soldiers and demonstrated the gap between this discourse and the lived realities at the local level. In the first chapter, I showed how the global discourse universalises children as being vulnerable and conceptualises a ‘normal childhood’ in a way that renders all forms of children’s military participation as an abhorrent violation of universal children’s rights. I also emphasised that the global discourse depicts ‘child soldiers’ as innocent victims and dismisses their agency in recruitment. 

Then, by drawing from various ethnographic studies, I challenged this discourse in Chapter 2 and 3, by examining various sociocultural contexts of ‘child soldiering’ and the circumstances in which young people may voluntarily and even enthusiastically join an armed force. Here, I demonstrated the meaningfulness of ‘child soldiering’ and the rationality of ‘child soldiers’ in certain local contexts and thereby refuted the global notion of ‘child soldiering’ as a clear and universal case of barbarity and abuse of children. Finally in Chapter 4, I investigated the consequences of the global discourse at the local level and illustrated how wellintentioned programmes based on the assumption of vulnerability and innocence of child soldiers not only failed to address the local concerns and aspirations but actually did disservice to their intended beneficiaries. In effect, I have argued that we can neither critically understand nor effectively address the phenomenon of ‘child soldiers’ through the existing global humanitarian discourse of ‘child soldiers’.

Then, what would an alternative conceptual framework of ‘child soldiers’ look like? While it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a detailed discussion, I make two suggestions based on my research and analysis. First, we need to do away with the age definition of a ‘child soldier’ as anyone under the age of 18 who is associated with armed forces. As demonstrated throughout the paper, the question of who is a ‘child’ and who should be allowed to take up arms is a very complex one. As it stands, the global definition of a child soldier pre-defines an answer to this question, and when it conflicts with local norms and practices, organisations are trying to persuade (or ‘sensitise’) the local populations to change their views and attitudes. However, as I demonstrated in Chapter 4, this approach is likely to either generate resentment or lead to political manipulations among those who do not share the global discourse. Indeed, as David Francis (2007) rightly asked, the contemporary humanitarian framework of child soldiers is trapped in the following dilemma: ‘How do you enforce a law when the very people the law is designed to protect do not see themselves as belonging to such a category?’ (228). In this regard, I suggest that we change the terminology to ‘young combatants’ or ‘young military participants’, so as to avoid the Straight-18 definition of a ‘child soldier’ but still address the issue of young people’s military recruitment in general, which indeed deserves attention and assistance in many parts of the world.

Second, we need to place local contexts and young people’s agency at the very beginning and centre of the situational analysis and programming for assistance. Taking context and agency seriously does not mean that we regard all forms of children’s military participation as legitimate or disregard the grievous suffering that many young people are undergoing every day around the globe. In certain situations, children may indeed be abducted, tortured, enslaved by armed forces, and this is not a desirable or acceptable practice. Nevertheless, this paper has demonstrated that young people often consciously and effectively devise ways to make the best of their adverse life situations, and simplistic efforts to remove children from the single source of risk (i.e. the military) may be ineffective in addressing their underlying predicaments and aspirations. In other words, without pre-judging children’s presence in the military as a clear instance of child abuse and manipulation by adults, we need to investigate the overall socio-economic and political conditions, particular meanings that they may attach to those conditions, and finally the tactics and strategies young people adopt in those circumstances. To be sure, this would require considerable re-thinking and re-configuration on the part of humanitarian organisations and will present many challenges to their work, particularly in the area of advocacy. However, I contend that such efforts are absolutely necessary if we indeed seek to acquire a better understanding of why young people participate in seemingly dangerous activities and to support them and their communities in ways that they themselves find helpful and meaningful.

7 References Cited: … (full text).

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