Children used in armed conflict is a sad reality in a number of countries, and an increasing source of distressing news stories. A United Nations campaign has been working to help stop this practice, helping countries ensure that no children are recruited as child soldiers in their national security forces, and stop and prevent the violence against children in conflict zones.
Most will be familiar with disturbing stories emerging from Nigeria, where the militant group Boko Haram has been kidnapping children to be used as suicide bombers, or Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) army is also increasingly relying on the systematic enlisting of children, who are then coerced, and trained, into carrying out acts of violence and suicide bombings.
According to the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in 2015 the suffering of children in conflict zones in the Central African Republic, Israel and the State of Palestine, Libya, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen, increased due to the worsening effects of war. The report makes for some grim reading.
In 2015 alone, large-scale forced displacement, such as in the Central African Republic, or horrifying acts of violence against children, such as in South Sudan during government offensives between May and August 2015 are only two examples of the terrible impacts armed conflict has on children. And as tensions grow and conflict intensifies in places such as Yemen and Syria, children are increasingly recruited and used as soldiers by armed groups and national security forces alike. In Yemen, intensifying conflict since the end of March 2015 has seen a dramatic increase in the number of child soldiers, with 'four times as many children recruited in the six-month period from March to September 2015 than in the whole of 2014”.
Yet, among all the gloom, a beacon of light has been breaking through.
To counteract what seems to have become a normal practice within armed groups in numerous conflict zones, in 2014 the UN launched the campaign 'Children, Not Soldiers', a collaboration of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and UNICEF.
The campaigns seeks specifically to put an end to, and prevent, the recruitment of child-soldiers within the national security forces of an initial eight countries: Afghanistan, Chad, DR of Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, who all signed Action Plans to achieve the campaign's goals.
In the face of ongoing conflict in Syria, and of growing tensions in areas such as Nigeria and the Yemen, and therefore of a huge amount of work still needed to eradicate the use of, and violence against, children in armed conflict, the 'Children, Not Soldiers' campaign must however be recognised for some important achievements since its launch in March 2014, such as “the release of hundreds of children, new laws criminalising underage recruitment, the development of age-assessment mechanisms and national awareness-raising campaigns”.
More specifically, the campaign has helped achieve:
the Afghan government's criminalisation of the recruitment of children;
a significant reduction in verified cases of recruitment and use of children by national security forces, especially in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar, in 2015;
the nomination of a Presidential Advisor to address sexual violence and child recruitment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo;
750 children released from Myanmar's army since the country signed the Action Plan;
the establishment of a Child Protection Unit in the Somali armed forces, and mechanisms in place through which child-soldiers found within its ranks are handed over to the UN;
Chad's completion of the requirements of its Action Plan.
Before 2016 is up, the campaign is working to stop the recruitment of child-soldiers by the security forces of the remaining seven countries (Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen) who have signed Action Plans to this end. The task may seem unsurmountable, yet even small steps can mean the difference between life and death for many children in some of the most troubled regions of the world.
You can watch 'Children, Not Soldiers' UN Ambassador Forest Whitaker talking about the campaign in this video: