Children are involved in numerous armed conflicts all over the world. Recent examples are Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, India, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Indonesia, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.
Armed groups and government forces continue to recruit and use children. Many are forced to join up and cannot leave once they are in the ranks. While the majority of child-soldiers are aged between 15 and 18, in some conflicts children as young as nine have been recruited. Others are growing up in war zones and have few possibilities to survive other than by joining an armed group “voluntarily”..
The suffering of the child soldiers
Feb-12: Red Hand Day in Geneva
All child soldiers suffer a great deal when in the ranks of an armed force. Conditions are usually harsh and discipline maintained by brutal punishment. Life is dangerous and characterized by hard work, lack of food, drinking water and sanitation, no access to health services and constant fears of being trapped in an ambush, landmines or gunfire. Many children die in this inhuman environment; others survive crippled, blinded or traumatized for the rest of their lives. Boys are not the only ones at risk. Approximately one third are girls. They carry out the same tasks as boys but are frequently subjected to sexual violence and forced to be the “wives” of commanders or to serve as sexual slaves. As a consequence they are often infected with HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. Many become pregnant. In some cases they are stigmatized and have to live with their babies under war conditions.
The story is not over once these young people return home. Some discover their families have been killed or their homes destroyed. There may be little chance of finding a job or returning to school and some turn to crime or prostitution. Many must deal with physical disabilities. Communities may find it difficult to accept these former soldiers, and the youth themselves may reject community rules or traditions. Communities, families and former child soldiers need financial support and assistance to re-establish connections and create opportunities to rebuild their lives.
To tackle this misery and organized misuse of children international legal standards have been put in place to protect children. The Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in May 2000. It prohibits the direct participation of under 18s in hostilities and sets 18 as the minimum age for recruitment by armed groups and for compulsory recruitment by governments. It entered into force on 12 February 2002, Since then more than 100 states have ratified this standard-setting treaty
To commemorate this important step and to guarantee all children’s right to be protected from armed conflict, the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has created Red Hand Day.