The Reality of Child Soldiers

Photo credit: Endre Vestuk

The Kony 2012 video has undoubtedly galvanized many people into action, and has raised the issue of child soldiers to an unprecedented level in the West. Despite its popularity, with close to 100 million views at the time of this writing, the film and its makers, Invisible Children, have received criticism on several fronts. One of the most salient is its perceived reinforcement of stereotypes associated with child soldiers. What is the reality of these young people?

Professor Mark Drumbl, the Director of the Transnational Law Institute at Washington and Lee University, and an expert on  the phenomenon of child soldiers, when asked about Joseph Kony and the Kony 2012 video, said,

“Kony needs to be brought to justice, so it’s helpful to encourage this as an endgame. Ending the practice of child soldiering, however, requires much more than prosecuting and punishing a handful of persons responsible for illegal recruitment. Also, child soldiering is a global phenomenon, not just an African phenomenon. The Lord’s Resistance Army, which Kony leads, has relied on brutal abduction of children. World-wide, however, and including inAfrica, most child soldiers demonstrate some initiative in coming forward and enlisting in fighting forces. Child soldiering as a global practice cannot be understood without recognizing the salience of youth volunteerism, of young people making the best out of tough circumstances.”

Drumbl’s new book Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy (read the first chapter here) makes a strong case that most Western ideas about child soldiers are skewed. Both the 1997 Cape Town Principles and Practices document and the Paris Principles of 2007 document make clear that child soldiers include not only active combatants but also children recruited for labor, sexual servitude, and other tasks that support the fighting forces. These documents also call for an end to recruiting of anyone under the age of eighteen.

By these standards child soldiers exist in more than eighty countries and territories worldwide. These are not just nations in Africa, where only forty percent of child soldiers reside, but also in Asia, Europe,Australia, and theAmericas. Nations that have recruitment ages below eighteen are in violation of these principles; including theUnited States,England,Germany,China, thePhilippines,Nepal, and many others.

Another fact contrary to the standard picture of child soldiers is that some forty percent of them are female. Drumbl argues that bringing these young women back into their communities requires attention to their unique needs, including the social stigma of bearing children within the armed groups. Current programs often focus on an approach that does not separate the sexes.

Other common stereotypes for child soldiers include the faultless passive victim (which drives a great deal of international policy), the irreparably damaged goods, the hero (as in parts of East Timor) and the demon. All of these miss the complexities, variability, and the uniqueness of each child’s experience. Images too are driven by who the victims are. Those who are perceived as targeting Westerners are, “seen less like deluded children and more like menacing adults.” Consider the case of Omar Khadr, who was 15 when he was captured byU.S. forces inAfghanistan, and was convicted of murdering an American soldier. A child in similar circumstances, with a different victim, would have been free many years ago in many African countries.

Drumbl encourages the world community to adopt an approach that is multi faceted and based in facts, one that “adopt[s] a supple, empathetic, and dexterous approach to child soldiers that vivifies their dignity rather than the current Zeitgeist that encases their vulnerability.” He also advocates for use of frameworks in addition to those preferred by policy makers, including qualitative research, anthropology, and developmental neurobiology.

For more, see his talk atBeloitCollege’s 2011 Weisberg Keynote Lecture. His strategy of “emboldening” the rights of children will better serve the world community, communities directly impacted by child soldiering, and the children themselves.