Coming face-to-face with a child soldier

Boko Haram’s ranks are estimated to be 40 percent children. Let’s face those facts now, to better prepare soldiers that might meet them in the field.

By: /
October 21, 2015
A Chadian soldier embraces a former child soldier of insurgent group Boko Haram in Ngouboua, Chad, April 22, 2015. The young men said they were Chadian nationals forced to join Boko Haram while studying the Quran in Nigeria, and that they escaped and turned themselves in to Chadian authorities. Picture taken April 22, 2015. REUTERS/Moumine Ngarmbassa

In April, 2014, deep in northern Nigeria, an estimated 276 girls disappeared from their school at the hands of the now-infamous group Boko Haram. Local activists quickly took to Twitter, asking for global support to #bringbackourgirls. In the weeks and months following the kidnapping, the international community was gripped by what was to come of these girls. A year and a half later, most the girls are still missing and over 800,000 children have been displaced by the continued violence and fighting surrounding Boko Haram.

Regrettably, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls was not the first time that Boko Haram targeted children for the ranks of its armed group, nor will it be its last. Recognizing the perceived strategic and tactical advantages of using children, they continue to swell their ranks. At the close of 2014, children reportedly made up over 40 percent of Boko Haram’s fighting force. 

The spectre of sexual violence and servitude, which the Chibok girls faced, is only one of the many roles that children made to fight for Boko Haram face. Some work as cooks, porters and look-outs. While other children, some as young as seven, will be made to commit suicide bombings, be used as human shields or operate as frontline combatants.

It is critical to understand that child soldiering is a specific operational tactic that groups such as Boko Haram use to achieve their goals and remain successful on the battlefield. Children are used because of their youth, rather than in spite of it. 

A nuanced understanding of this use of children as weapons of war is crucial. Recognizing the complexities of child soldiering as a tactic demands that we include and value the security sector perspective and role. Our largely humanitarian response to instances of child soldiery has failed to acknowledge or address this specific security dimension of the issue. 

The abuse of youth as instruments of war is a reality that can’t be resolved on the day you face them in the field. Yet we continue to expect those who face them on mission to come up with ad hoc solutions often based on inadequate knowledge of the issue. 

In March of 2014, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2143, which expresses the critical importance of “providing military, police and civilian peacekeepers with adequate pre-deployment and in-mission training on mission-specific child protection issues.” This resolution was further reinforced just one month later, as Nigeria led the United Nations Security Council to pass Resolution 2151. Res. 2151 encourages countries to include child protection in military trainings and standard operating procedures as part of a broader Security Sector Approach.

When the security sector is better equipped to be a part of the solution, child soldiering will prove less advantageous. Armed groups will be less motivated to commit to using them within their ranks. A security sector response is an essential piece of the global strategy to make child soldiering unthinkable.

Just as a purely humanitarian response is not enough to stop Boko Haram, it is impossible for one nation alone to break this cycle of violence. As we operationalise these trainings, combinations of nations and organizations must work together to prepare the security sector to deal with child soldiers. Cooperative efforts such as these represent a chance to raise the protection of children within the overall peace and security agenda and to recognize child soldiering as a unique security concern that demands unique responses.

To prevent Boko Haram from continuing their abuses against children, we need an international, multi-faceted approach. The use of children as soldiers is a global phenomenon that is impacting every continent and every conflict that currently exists.  If we do not find proactive methods to prevent the use of children as soldiers then we will continue to miss critical opportunities to stem the tide of instability which is engulfing our world. 

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