On the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, February 12th, 2022, the Pope recalled the tragedy of these minors who are victims of violence. According to the UN, more than 8.500 children were used in scenarios of hostility in 2020. Journalist Laura Battaglia talks about the plight of the little ones in Yemen, the country experiencing the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world. (Translated by Alissa D’Vale)
“A tragedy”, “an abominable crime.” Over the years, the Pope has often made his voice heard about the terrible plague of child soldiers, becoming an interpreter of the pain of many minors, taken away from their childhood and forced to take up arms, becoming instruments of death. In a tweet from his @Pontifex account, published on the occasion of the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, Pope Francis writes: Child soldiers are stripped of their childhood, of their innocence, of their future, often of their very life. Each one of them is a cry that rises to God and accuses the adults who have put weapons in their little hands. In 2021 the Pope wrote: It is a crime against humanity to put weapons and not bread, toys, and books in the hands of children.
Serious violation of the rights of the child
Boys are employed as combatants but also as cooks, porters, guards, and messengers. Girls are involved in various activities such as transportation, medical assistance, cooking, cleaning, caring for other children, and may become an active part of the conflict. In Africa, for example, almost 40% of the girls recruited by the armed forces and groups, directly participate in hostilities or in the Middle East, where there are all-women units for the use of tactical weapons.
However, both boys and girls – are victims of kidnappings, threats, and manipulations. Some are driven by poverty, forced to generate income for their families. Others join forces to survive or to protect their communities. Regardless of their participation, the recruitment and use of children by the armed forces – stresses UNICEF – is a serious violation of children’s rights and international humanitarian law.
A growing phenomenon
The International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers was instituted on February 12th, 2002, the date in which the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure entered into force, which prohibits the participation of children in armed conflicts.
Unfortunately, the UN, on this 2022 International Day, recalled that in 2020 there were more than 8,500 child soldiers recruited and employed in war zones, an increase compared to the 7,750 cases registered in 2019. There were more than 93,000 child soldiers between 2005 and 2020. In just two years, the UN has verified 26,425 serious violations. Almost 75% of conflicts involve the recruitment of minors and more than half of these involve girls.
What children suffer are extensive forms of exploitation and abuse that also become sexual in the case of girls. Early marriage is another tool favored by some parties to the conflict: girls are forced to marry adult male combatants and live under their control, often subject to daily sexual violence.
A plague that is difficult to eradicate
Laura Battaglia is a journalist, documentary filmmaker, author of many reports on Yemen, and reminds Vatican News that there are countries where “childhood is not childhood and where children, when they are born, are already adults.” It is, she affirms, a very difficult context to understand and change because minors have always been employed in some type of work, where girls are married very young, and boys are used in various ways by the militias or in the armies. Sensitivity is needed, but also the empathy that comes from tackling this issue firsthand.
Yemen, where children go to the front
Laura Battaglia knows Yemen well, she has talked about it many times. It is the country that is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Save the Children recalls that in January 2022, a civilian was killed or injured every hour, which has made it the deadliest month since the last major escalation of the conflict in 2018. In the country, in fact, between January 6th and February 2nd, more than 200 adults and 15 children were killed while 354 adults and 30 children were injured, resulting in a total of 599 civilian casualties.
“There are children here who go to school in the morning and then go from apron to uniform in the afternoon because they go to combat.” The phenomenon, the journalist underlines, is not linked to the war that broke out in 2014, but is a reality that already existed before, especially in more economically depressed areas.
“Many children, before 2014, were orphans and were sold by families or close relatives to militias, groups of traffickers that turn them into child soldiers, or drug traffickers.”
Over time, the children were not only destined to collect garbage or beg for charity, but for the guerrillas and they became “killing meat,” people to put in the front of the battlefield to fight against the enemy.
“Families – he explains – feel in some way depositaries of a mission, namely, that of donating a cause to their children.” A modality that is partly voluntary but also imposed, because there are militiamen who enter homes to check how many children there are, whether they are female or male, and then take them away. “There are little children who go to the checkpoints after school with their parents, with their uncles who take them there out of pride, to teach them how to wage war and fight against the invader.”
In recent times, regarding the phenomenon of child soldiers, says Laura Battaglia, it is not so much the pandemic that weighs in but “the international sanctioning system, which is why families get more indebted and when they cannot receive money from relatives abroad, their only solution is to make their children become adults, even with war.”