"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security." - Invisible Children
The number of children actively engaged in warfare surpasses a quarter of a million. The United Nations estimates that there are more than 250,000 children associated with armed groups or forces, as soldiers, cooks, porters, and sexual partners.[i] And we cannot know with any precision the numbers engaged in conflicts in ungoverned regions – those where no governmental authority is in place – such as the eastern portion of the DRC or northern Nigeria.
Children in conflict carry more than rifles, knives and grenades. They carry immense psychological and emotional scars that leave trauma deeply implanted in still-forming young minds. Since 1990, two million children have died as a direct result of armed conflict, six million more have been disabled or seriously injured, and another one million have been orphaned or separated from their families. Wars and civil violence in the 21st century exacted an enormous and disproportionate cost on young people, many of whom became the currency of these conflicts. Even when conflicts cease, their psychological burdens often preclude full social participation.[ii]
The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is noted for kidnapping young boys and girls from rural villages and compelling them to fight either through physical intimidation or drugs. They have been doing so since 1986, and more than 5,000 children are currently engaged in LRA activities. Observers estimate that 90% of the LRA’s fighting force is comprised of children.[iii]
Casualty rates among children point to their inclusion in the mechanisms of warfare. Beyond their role as coerced combatants, children are too often caught in the line of fire. Children constitute the majority of causalities caused by landmines, remnants of cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war. In 2011, children comprised 61% of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan, 58% of casualties in the Lao, half of all casualties in Iraq, and almost half in Sudan.[iv]
Children fleeing the Rwandan genocide crossing eastward into Burundi or northward into Uganda found themselves without a country to return to when the fighting ended. Having lost parents and family in the warfare, they lacked documentation for reentry and, in fact, would have had no place to go were they readmitted. Many languished in refugee camps, while others became involved in crime and violence. Others still fled to the DRC where they joined in that country’s continuing ethnic conflicts, fueled by the same divisions that led to Rwanda’s tragedy
Child soldiers are not restricted to conflicts in Africa, although the experiences within the past two decades in Liberia, Uganda, the DRC and Sierra Leone have dominated headlines. Hundreds of children under the age of eighteen took part in Sri Lanka’s civil war,[v] both Colombia’s leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries have kidnapped children to be soldiers, with estimates as high as 18,000 coerced into one side or another.[vi] In Myanmar, children as young as 11 are forced into the national army, and in Afghanistan, the Taliban use hundreds of children as fighters, with some even becoming suicide bombers.[vii] Many of these young Taliban fighters are the victims of routine sexual abuse by their trainers, some drugged into unconsciousness and then molested while they slept.[viii] And in Syria, children as young as 15 are being recruited by many of the rebel factions fighting the Assad regime, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[ix]
[i] Otunnu, Olara A.., 2005. ‘Era of Application: Instituting a compliance and enforcement regime for CAAC’, Statement before the Security Council, United Nations, New York, 23 February, p. 3. Cited in: UNICEF, 2009. Progress for Children: A report card on child protection, Report No. 8, UNICEF, New York, p. 21.
[ii] UNICEF. (2013, May). State of the World's Children Report. 55. Retrieved October 19, 2013, from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/sowc2013/files/SWCR2013_ENG_Lo_res_24_Apr_2013.pdf
[iv] UNICEF. (2013, May). State of the World's Children Report. 55. Retrieved October 19, 2013, from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/sowc2013/files/SWCR2013_ENG_Lo_res_24_Apr_2013.pdf
[viii]Qasim Youfsazai, “Taliban Sexually Abuse Suicide Bombers During Training, NDS Says,” Central Asia Online, October 3, 2013; http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/pakistan/main/2013/10/03/feature-01
Demographics of Invisibility