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UNITED NATIONS, Oct 12 2011 (IPS) - In the last decade, more than two million children have died as a result of armed conflicts and over one million have been orphaned or separated from their families. Yet for children affected by wars, these costs are only a few of the high price children pay, says the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).
Children in armed conflicts continue to risk being recruited as child soldiers, even as governments and organisations attempt to devise and implement new solutions to prevent recruitment of children under the age of 18.
Yet in discussions around child protection, emphasis is often placed on the work of international organisations, “sometimes at the detriment of the responsibility and important work carried out by governments themselves”, remarked Radhika Coomaraswamy, the special representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, at a panel at the United Nations (U.N.) in New York on Oct. 10.
In an effort to stop children from being recruited by armed groups, Colombia has been one of the first countries to implement a governmental prevention model. This includes an early warning system, where families are encouraged to report when a child is at risk of leaving home and being recruited by guerrilla groups.
For over four decades the country has been heavily burdened by a prolonged conflict between the government and armed violent groups like Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).
Beatriz Linares, an expert on children’s rights who participated in the panel, said that in Colombia in 2007, an intersectoral commission headed by the Colombian vice-president was created to prevent the recruitment of children.
The commission made it possible for the government to intervene in a systematic manner, she said. In addition, the government defined a number of risk factors to identify children who would be especially vulnerable to recruitment.
It looked at high-risk regions, with a high index of sexual and domestic violence and where illegal armed groups have a presence. Children who lack future prospects and education and who live in severe poverty are more vulnerable to recruiters.
An important step, Linares said, was defining the risks to children through an early warning system in the villages and towns where signs of recruitment existed. This model was introduced in 116 municipalities, or nearly 11 percent of the municipalities in the country.
Linares told IPS that through the work done with the communities in high-risk areas, the government encourages families to report when their children leave home, so that the state can mobilize effectively and prevent recruitment.
“In Colombia, 85 percent of the children that are with FARC or ELN, are with them because they left, tired of being beaten, of being abused, of not being able to go to school. Because of that, no one knows the magnitude of the problem, because the children leave and the families don’t report it,” she said.
“The recruiters have impressive strategies – they give the poor children iPods, they give them MP3s, they give them computers, and they invite them to video games and in that way they are ensnaring them… and when the children least know it they end up with them and can no longer escape,” Linares added.
Addressing this problem is difficult because Colombia is a large country and has a lot of jungle where guerrillas can hide.
“The challenge is to work directly with the children and with the communities,” Linares said.
“But maybe the most important thing is that we are focused on how we can guarantee children all their rights, how can we ensure a good environment, so that the child doesn’t have to decide to leave to search for a life with the guerrilla,” she concluded.
“They have remarkable resilience”
Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone and author of “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier”, highlighted the importance and need for trust between young people and governments, saying that over time, children affected by war have instead begun trusting non- governmental organisations for protection.
“Strong measures are not taken for these governments to directly link themselves with youth and the young people on the ground and with the communities, to build that trust that has been broken,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of providing psychological support to prevent children from returning to fighting once they leave rehabilitation centres. Ensuring that children receive strong support from family or family-like groups helps children “so that they can feel that they are accepted back in normal society”.
“In the case of, generally West Africa, we found that a lot of these young people went to other countries and jumpstarted wars, because again I would do the same thing if I had nothing to do with my life.”
Beah told IPS that the general consensus among children affected by war is that they want to be heard and they want to be consulted in the governments’ policies to protect children.
“Some of these young people, though they may be very young, are very matured, in terms of the fact that they have gone through some difficult things… They have remarkable resilience and they have remarkable intelligence that can be tapped into,” Beah said.
“But for some reason, generally everyone feels frustrated that they are not spoken to about how they feel and how they can be a part of the solution.”
Because Beah was rescued from being a child soldier and thus could pursue his dreams, he was able to become a spokesperson for children affected by war, addressing organisations like the U.N. to share his story and offer advice.
Beah’s story is one of hope, but it is not the norm. The hope and the opportunities he had remain unavailable to many of the estimated 300,000 child soldiers who are involved in more than 30 conflicts around the world today.
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