Why aren’t child soldiers treated as human trafficking ‘survivors’?

Child soldiers are often shunned when they return from war. This is no way to treat ‘survivors’

By Benedetta Wasonga.  Published 2-22-2023 by openDemocracy

Child soldiers in South Sudan. Photo: UNMISS/flickr/CC

What happens to child soldiers once the fighting is over? How do they re-integrate into society, and who supports them to find a new place in civilian life? These questions are not as easy to answer as one might think. In post-conflict settings in Africa, former child soldiers return traumatised. Warring parties have used them not only as fighters, but also in many other jobs. Some, especially girls, have also been subjected to gender-based violence.

Yet, for the most part, they are not greeted warmly by those back home. International organisations do not trip over themselves to provide them with services. They are instead met, for the most part, with suspicion. And because they are not seen as ‘survivors’, there are few places they can turn to for help.

Is there a way back for child soldiers?

The United Nations defines a child soldier as any person below the age of 18 who is, or who has been, used in any capacity by an armed group. This includes as fighters, cooks, porters, spies, or for sexual purposes.

Boys and girls end up as child soldiers for numerous reasons. Some are threatened, coerced, abducted, or manipulated. Others are driven by extreme poverty, compelled to generate income to sustain their families. Still others join armed groups to protect themselves and their communities. No matter their involvement, the recruitment and use of children by armed forces is a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law.

Children who have been used by armed actors do not reintegrate easily. Depending on when they were used and how old they were at the time, they may return to civilian life still as children or as adults. Regardless, many of them will be viewed with suspicion, stigmatised, or outright rejected by their families, communities, governments, and even the international community.

This does not simply make the task of (re-)building inter-personal and communal relationships more difficult. It also makes it less likely that affected individuals will be able to access the support they need, or that programmes will be designed with them in mind. Based on the research I conducted, I found that across a variety of post-conflict settings in Africa, policies, programmes and legislation for reception and reintegration back into society – into formal education systems, labour markets, asylum programmes, etc. – are not well-tailored to help former child soldiers. And those with lived experience are unlikely to have been involved in their design or implementation.

This is a particularly surprising oversight, given that children are recognised as especially vulnerable to human trafficking and modern slavery, including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, early marriage, and (re-)recruitment into armed groups. Yet in many post-conflict scenarios, anti-trafficking programming focuses almost entirely on adult women and their vulnerability to sexual exploitation. Engaging specifically with former child soldiers to mitigate the risks they face is, at best, a secondary priority.

Partnering with former child soldiers

Engaging with child soldiers as ‘survivors’ is one way to open up a path for involving them in policy and programme design. It’s also a potentially powerful way of changing the narrative around them in ways that can ease their reintegration.

As part of wider research into what enables effective survivor engagement, I spoke with one individual, Tulieza (a pseudonym), who is both high up in an inter-governmental organisation in Africa and a former child soldier. His personal experience and reflections are incredibly valuable, as they highlight the enormous challenges in developing meaningful engagement with former child soldiers.

Tulieza was taken from his village at the age of 15 and recruited into the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1990s. He tried to re-enter formal schooling once it was over, but found it difficult to find a place that would accept him. His association with the war, and the assumption that he was a killer, made people and institutions want to keep their distance from him.

“There is always suspicion that [ex-child soldiers] are not good people,” Tulieza said. “Once [organisations] find out that they are former child soldiers, they tend to discriminate on them and perceive them as criminals […] who must be kept away from society.”

This stigma combines with other, more mundane logistical hurdles to further raise the bar for engagement. For example, many child soldiers never really end up ‘going back’, at least not at the outset. They find themselves in internally displaced person camps, in refugee camps, or in other informal settlements where educational and income opportunities are severely limited or non-existent. This not only keeps them in poverty. It also prevents them from getting the education they need to compete with other non-combatants. This is the situation faced by many who have experienced exploitation and find themselves outside their own country without papers. As one NGO director told me:

That stops us from engaging them because if I am found engaging them without proper documentation, I risk the organisation being closed down. Yet it is not their fault that they found themselves in the country without papers. They are just victims trying to survive in a foreign country away from home.

When asked which obstacles stand in the way of former child soldiers, Tulieza said it’s the assumption of a level playing field – the assumption that child soldiers are not traumatised or disadvantaged – that hinders them the most. “It is the lack of recognition of survivors,” he said. “[The] perceiving of survivors as normal people, and having them compete with non-survivors”. This pretence that former child soldiers are just normal people who can compete in a meritocratic system is, to Tulieza, the biggest injustice.

While states make public commitments to protect such vulnerable groups, they also blacklist people as former child soldiers and subsequently class them as war criminals with fingerprints stored in government databases. This means their marginalisation and exclusion continues long after they are children: they are denied clearances by the police as well as denied travel visa making it impossible for them to move or seek asylum.

The legacy of this marginalisation is profound in the longer-term:

You cannot expect someone who has been fighting in the bush for over ten years to compete fairly with someone who was not. The only life they know of is gun, gun, gun and machete. All they understand is the language of killing and maiming, therefore to compete with someone who in her/his entire life has been interacting with books and pens is the perfect example of hypocrisy and unfairness.

He continued:

To succeeding to engaging survivors of war, we should overlook the fact that they were denied the chance to go through formal education, and amplify their voices because of the experiences or circumstances which led to their inability to access formal education.

A long road ahead

Tulieza got lucky and has been able to reap the rewards of his skills, motivation and perseverance. A humanitarian organisation sponsored him throughout his formal education, and he eventually went on to a director of organisations. But this exceptional case only raises the question: what happens to others who did not have this opportunity? How can we sustain systems of support that are designed with the experiences of child soldiers at their centre?

Although much has been written about the violence that former child soldiers endured, little is known about how the stigma associated with such experiences influences and hinders their reintegration into society, and how it prevents them from playing a meaningful role in the development of appropriate policies and programmes. It is clear that they face discrimination on many different fronts, including from their families, their own government, and the international community that supposedly is there to protect them.

This is yet another wrong that former child soldiers have to endure, after so many crimes have already been committed against them. The international community must work harder to recognise and protect children as a vulnerable group in armed conflicts. This starts, first and foremost, by engaging with them. What is needed now are ideas for how governments and humanitarian organisations could bring former child soldiers into the policy and programming process, so that the system could – for the first time in their lives – work for them.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.


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