The use of children in armed combat is a form of modern slavery and human trafficking. It is as serious and as lucrative an international crime as weapon or drug trafficking. Children in dozens of countries are forced to fight or otherwise exploited by governments and rebels alike – as frontline soldiers, camp workers or sex slaves.
The international definition of the trafficking of child soldiers involves three necessary elements: consent, exploitation, and movement within a country or across a border. A child soldier is “trafficked” when there is forced recruitment or no genuine voluntary recruitment; when the recruitment is done without the informed consent of the person’s parent or legal guardians; and when the person in question was not fully informed of the duties involved in the military service. Child soldiering is a form of modern slavery because the acts required of a child soldier are dangerous enough to interfere with a child’s fundamental human right to education, health and development.
Child soldiering is listed as “one of the worst forms of child labour” in the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, adopted by the International Labour Organization in 1999. The trafficking of child soldiers is directly connected to sexual violence and exploitation by adult superiors. Very often, children are abducted from one place to another (from their home to a camp, where they are trained, and then to a field of combat). But children do not have to actually cross a border to be trafficked. If they are moved within their own country and forced to engage in exploitative labour like dangerous armed combat, this constitutes child trafficking. Child soldiering is particularly prevalent in those developing countries where political, economic, and social instability are common and where around half the population is not yet of legal age.
Children who are displaced and impoverished by war or civil unrest are particularly at risk. At the end of 2019, nearly 33 million children had been forcibly displaced worldwide. During the civil war that lasted 17 years in Sierra Leone, more than one million children were displaced, and 25,000 (some as young as six years old) were abducted and forced to become members of armed groups. The UN estimates that 10,000 were used as child soldiers. The recruitment of children into armed conflict has claimed the lives of more than 2 million children, left more than 6 million maimed or permanently disabled, orphaned 1 million, afflicted 10 million with serious psychological trauma, and made 12 million refugees.
Child soldiers are subjected daily to dehumanizing atrocities. They are often abducted from their own homes, tortured, indoctrinated with brutality, forced to become intoxicated with mind-altering drugs, threatened with death and or dismemberment if they do not fight, forced to return to their own village to witness or participate in the death or disfigurement of their own family members, required to kill friends who do not obey the commanders, and made to watch the punishment of other child soldiers who attempt to escape.
Child soldiers are brainwashed thoroughly and brutally until their ethics and moral values become so distorted that they believe doing evil is good. Brainwashing is accomplished by desensitizing them to the sight and commission of atrocities. Some who try to escape are reportedly boiled alive, and other child soldiers are then forced to eat the human flesh. Their commanders keep the children obedient through frequent beatings and threats of death or retaliation against their family members.
Young girls are abducted as well and make up 40 percent of the ranks of armed groups in some countries. In El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda, almost one-third of the child soldiers are young girls, who are enslaved, given to military commanders as “wives” or domestic servants, and subjected to sexual violence on a daily basis. Female child soldiers are often used as domestic servants and sex slaves during conflict. Those who become infected with HIV are usually not treated, and those who become pregnant are often forced to give birth. During the 1990s, over 800 children were born to the Lord’s Resistance Army “wives” who were concentrated at Jabelein camp in southern Sudan.
Children who are trained to be fearless, or who are pumped up on drugs, become dangerous killing machines. Powerless and abandoned children are empowered with small, light weapons and indoctrinated with brutality into the virtues of committing atrocities. These children are victims of inhumane brainwashing and merciless combat training that make them robotically obey orders to kill innocent victims – just to stay alive.