Red Hand Day: The suffering of the child soldiers

Children are involved in numerous armed conflicts all over the world. Recent examples are Afghanistan, Chad, Centralafrican Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), India, Iraq, Israel / Palestine, Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Thailand and Yemen. Young soldiers' lives are often full of dangers and characterized by hard work, lack of food and drinking water. There is no health care but constant fear of being trapped in an ambush, landmine or gunfire. Discipline and obedience are enforced by brutal methods. Many children die under inhuman circumstances, others survive handicapped, blind or traumatized for the rest of their lives. However, boys are not the only ones at risk. Approximately one third of child soldiers are girls. They have to carry out the same tasks as the boys but, in addition, they are frequently subjects of sexual violence and are forced to be the commanders' "wives" or sex slaves. As a consequence many are infected with HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases and a lot of them become pregnant. In some cases they are stigmatized and have to live with their babies under extrem conditions.

Their suffering is not over once these young people return home. Some discover that their families have been killed or their homes are destroyed. There is hardly a chance of finding a job or to return to school, and crime or prostitution seem to be the only alternatives. Many have to cope with physical disabilities. Communities may find it difficult to accept these former child soldiers, and the adolescents may reject community rules and traditions. Communities, families and former child soldiers need financial support and assistance to re-establish social structures and create opportunities to rebuild their lives.

On 12 February 2002 the optional protocol came into force and it outlaws the enforced recruitment and use of children and adolescents under 18 in armed conflicts. This optional protocol has been accepted by more than 150 governments. Armed groups and even regular government forces, however, continue to recruit and use child soldiers. Many of them have been recruited by force and cannot leave the armed unit anymore. While the majority of child soldiers is between 15 and 18-year-old, in some wars even 9-year-olds have been drafted. Other children grow up in war zones and thus have little chance of survival if they do not join one of the armed groups "voluntarily".

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