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Q&A: Child Soldiering Driven by “Unequal Power Equation”

Interview with Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, head of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement

UNITED NATIONS, May 13 2008 (IPS) - The growing phenomenon of child soldiers – long prevalent in African countries such as Uganda, Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – is also taking root in Asia, specifically in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma (Myanmar) and the Philippines.

Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne Credit: Shahidul Alam

Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne Credit: Shahidul Alam

The United Nations says that of the estimated 250,000 child soldiers worldwide, a sizeable proportion is in South and Southeast Asia.

What are the primary causes of forced military conscription in Asia? Is it driven by ideology or by poverty? Or both?

“Whilst both ideology and poverty play a role in different proportions, there is also a third dimension to this problem,” says Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, executive director of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest charitable organisations which subscribes to the principles of self-help, non-violence and peace in a strife-torn country.

In ideological terms, Ariyaratne points out, militant groups can exercise control not only over a whole generation of children, but also of another generation, namely parents who invariably become subservient to these groups for want of protection of their children.

In an interview with IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, he said that conscription of children can be considered as an example that represents power dynamics between adults and children, and also an imbalance of power between them.

“Ideology” to justify a political aim may even be an excuse in this unequal power equation, says Ariyaratne, who is also the South Asian Regional Coordinator for the Tokyo-based Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC).

He pointed out that military conscription could even have wider repercussions on the lives of children than other forms of child abuse.

The reason: those adults who exercise power and recruit children derive their authority through the use of violence, and children are powerless to resist owing to the intensity of power that causes fear for life and limb of one’s own and those of loved ones.

“Often children are forced to submit to this use of force and are not in a powerful situation to resist without being subjected to retaliatory actions,” he said.

The situation becomes worse when state institutions meant to protect children also break down, with a loss of public confidence in state systems, Ariyaratne added.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: What role can religion and ethics education play in helping alleviate the plight of children worldwide, and particularly in Sri Lanka? What role has Sarvodaya played?

VA: The outward poverty of children is visible and obvious and can be attended to by way of fulfilling their physical needs. But more seriously, a significant proportion of children in Sri Lanka suffer from emotional poverty, which is hidden and invisible, and much more serious. These children have no purpose or direction in life, they live a life with a lot of frustrations, self-pity, anger and hatred towards their own plight.

Yet they do not openly show any signs of these negative emotions. These emotions will not be hidden forever. One day these bottled up emotions are going to burst out. By and large our children do not have adult role models. Even if the father is alive and is part of the household, his presence is not felt by children, especially boys. There is widespread domestic violence and alcoholism. They yearn for adult figures to guide them, mentor them.

Like many children around the world who are subjected to various forms of abuse, our children too demonstrate tremendous resiliency and courage. They have the ability to come out of challenging situations.

How can we help a child to grow up in a situation of this nature with equanimity? This is where spirituality, religion and ethics can play a big role. Sarvodaya adopts an integrated approach to child development and well-being. We start our programmes whilst the child is still in the mother’s womb. We have meditation programmes for pregnant mothers and their husbands to establish an emotional and spiritual link with the fetus.

We have programmes for pre-school as well as school-going children. We facilitate the running of over 5,000 early childhood development centres (pre-schools) throughout the country. Spiritual, moral and cultural values are an integral part of psycho-social and physical development of children where the fundamental teachings of religions that they belong to are encouraged to be practiced by the children.

And through GNRC, we have been able to produce children’s story books, host children’s camps to bring understanding and harmony between children who belong to various religious and ethnic groups. We also work on adults. And adults who are going to help children should nurture “emotional fortitude” as the situation is extremely delicate and serious. We have to help children to learn to bloom like a lotus without getting entangled in the mud.

IPS: How significant is the upcoming GNRC forum in Hiroshima? Will it act as a wake-up call to the international community to do more in terms of children worldwide?

VA: I strongly believe that the GNRC Forum in Hiroshima (May 24-26) is a very significant event in bringing dedicated groups working with and for children with a strong spiritual foundation.

When we act, whether as national or international communities, we try to do more in terms of children worldwide. Children do not expect “charity” from adults. The challenge is to equip our adult hearts and minds to understand the hopes and aspirations, pains and suffering, and needs of children from their own perspective. Not offer what we adults think are the best for children.

To do this, we need to shed our egoistic paternalistic and patriarchal attitudes and be humble enough to allow some space in our hearts and minds to the true predicament of children. Working with children is a formidable test for adults to examine and assess their own capacity to love, to forgive, to be compassionate, to be considerate and to cultivate equanimity.

Adults should not function as service delivery channels. Whatever we do should contribute to creating a deep, meaningful and a trustworthy relationship between adults and children. Once the adults go through this transformation within their own minds and hearts, there will be so many new avenues in order to act in a more effective way to alleviate the suffering of children and give them hope for the future.

Hiroshima will offer lessons, stories of success and hope. In my opinion, Hiroshima is going to be a watershed in making this happen, which would give the whole world a new message of caring for our children.

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