Child soldiers: passive victims?

Former child soldiers need the space to discuss their past and put it into context, before rehabilitation can begin.

Poverty and lack of economic opportunities lead to recruitment of child soldiers [AFP]

On this Universal Children’s Day, let us take another step towards honouring article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls on states to recognise the right of children to participate in processes that affect them. Currently, that right is not fully implemented in reintegration programmes for former child soldiers, to the detriment of themselves and their communities. In order to open space for meaningful participation we need to move past the dominant view of former child soldiers as passive victims.

The failure to look beyond the identity of former child soldiers as victims, to ask them about the complexity of their past and how they envision their future (one which builds on both the negative and positive experiences they have had), leads to programmes that do not respond fully to their interests or needs.

As a young woman demobilised at age 16 from the FARC in Colombia explained about reintegration programmes, “Many of us possess vast experience in the areas of survival, health, and discipline that we gained as a result of our time in the armed groups. But it’s not appreciated. They force us to push aside these things, to erase them, in order to create a new future that denies what we were and what we learned. They guide us to accept an identity that is not ours, to be bakers and cobblers…”

Not only does this approach ignore child soldiers’ past and deny them agency in shaping their future plans, it restricts them to a certain socio-economic class and ignores a key factor leading to recruitment: poverty or a lack of economic opportunities.

Without the necessary support, it may be easier for many former child soldiers to return to the ranks than to struggle to build a better future. As noted by a demobilised youth in Colombia, “There are no spaces to reflect on our stories; there is no mourning process. They focus on how to prepare us to fit into society’s norms, without understanding why, at some point, we left them behind.”

The capacity to make positive choices and demonstrate moral agency are attributes that need to be encouraged and fostered in children, especially former child soldiers.

No better option?

In Nepal, for some girls who took up arms with the Maoists, demobilisation represented a step backwards in terms of their capacity to shape their own future. Returning home meant facing a possible forced marriage or a life of indentured servitude. Asking more questions about why children joined the ranks, and their concerns for the future, will yield information that can guide policies to address the root causes that led to their vulnerability in the first place.

Ultimately, reintegration and reparation programmes for former child soldiers aim to provide children and youth with the necessary support to become active and engaged members of a peaceful society. Ideally, through these programmes, former child soldiers are given the tools to make choices that contribute to peace, rather than violence. The capacity to make positive choices and demonstrate moral agency are attributes that need to be encouraged and fostered in children, especially former child soldiers.

However, the dominant narrative that has shaped reintegration programming has conceptualised child soldiers primarily as passive victims. This has been necessary in order to secure legal protection for this group. Yet, at the social and political level, a victim-only approach imposes a straightjacket of innocence on former child soldiers that does not allow them to deal with their own possible feelings of remorse or their community’s potential resentment.

New approach needed

In the face of potential harms committed by children involved in armed groups, there is a tendency to want to relieve them of their guilt by pointing to outside factors, such as coercion or lack of choice. This approach, however, can emphasise their vulnerability and helplessness in a way that can be isolating, stigmatising, and ultimately disempowering for them. 

Looking beyond the “victim-perpetrator” binary, we should allow former child soldiers the space to discuss feelings of guilt or remorse and place those experiences within the larger context of structural poverty, war, and insecurity.

In Colombia, for example, former child combatants have expressed an interest in supporting initiatives that would help identify mass grave sites or prevent future recruitment. One boy who worked with a local community group, was given the space to provide information to a family about where their relatives were buried. According to him, this was important in that it helped ease the family’s pain, but it also helped ease his own pain. This is an example of an approach that acknowledges the complex range of identities held by child combatants and that empowers them to assert their moral agency.

Putting this approach into practice, the state-run reintegration programmes in Colombia, which currently require community service, could give former child soldiers a choice to address their moral responsibility through specific initiatives that seek to redress past harms or prevent future recruitment, rather than requiring them to clean up a park in a city where they have no connection.

By presuming victimhood and overlooking the complexities of child participation in armed conflict, we lose an opportunity to understand the full range of factors that lead to recruitment, which in turn impedes the process of identifying adequate solutions or guarantees of non-repetition. As a start, those who are working to help reintegrate former child soldiers need to ask them about their experiences, give them space to process their feelings of guilt, and identify their needs and possible solutions for integration into a peaceful society.

Virginie Ladisch is the head of the Children and Youth programme at the International Center for Transitional Justice.