In many post-conflict settings, the danger of renewed fighting remains, in large part due to the continuing presence of mobilized armed groups. This calls for DDR programs, which imply the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of combatants. It’s a process which aims at turning soldiers into citizens.
Child soldiers were used in large numbers in various recent conflicts, and have specific DDR needs. This is particularly true for the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. These countries engaged in destructive civil wars from the 1990s to early 2000s, in which child soldiers have constituted about one third of the total fighting forces. The failure to reintroduce them into society can lead to major long-term negative effects. The neglect of this children can stall, and even reverse peace processes. Human Rights Watch observes a direct link between ex-combatants’ poverty level and the continuing cycle of war crimes.
The reintegration efforts aim to reintroduce children who associated with armed groups back into society, in a peaceful and sustainable way. There are many sets of difficulties for child soldier reintegration, which this paper will now explore.
The first difficulties for the DDR of child soldiers come from a lack of resources. In 2005, approximately 3,800 ex-child soldiers got expelled from schools for financial reasons. A shortage of mental health professionals in West Africa results in the neglect of the mental health needs of child soldiers. Many point to a lack of support from the government, who failed in providing shelter for many ex-soldiers. The government also failed to offer medical rehabilitation for drug addictions. This is worrying given the high number of child soldiers affected by addictions, a consequence of militia recruitment and indoctrination tactics. To sustain these addictions, many will turn to a life of crime.
A central element to DDR programs is vocational training. It aims to equip ex-combatants with skills that will help them find jobs and reintegrate. However, because of poor implementation and oversight, these programs suffer of many shortcomings. They were plagued by irregularities and disruptions. Furthermore, ex-child soldiers with limited skills training have been unattractive job seekers compared to many other young unemployed people in post-war societies.
The second set of difficulties for DDR of child soldiers is related to a lack of places to return to, and stigmatization by local populations. The lack of birth certificates and national identity cards makes the process difficult. This is exacerbated by the very limited amount of resources owned by post-conflict communities. Many child soldiers were abducted at an early age, and had no recollection of whom or where their families were.
The most difficult aspect of DDR, according to a rural development expert, was local communities not accepting the return of ex-combatants. The return of child soldiers creates contests between tradition, embodied by community elders, and modernity, brought by new needs of these returning individuals. This creates tensions, expressed by a former child soldier: “I’m still not reintegrated. We are sitting around now trying to fend for ourselves. People are always assaulting us”. To prevent children from escaping, militia leaders used to brand and carve children’s bodies. This makes them easy to identify, and thus to stigmatize them. Stigmatization is limited by the practice of ceremonial rituals that help the reintegration of child combatants. But these rituals, which are a key cultural component for West African populations, are not practiced by western-style DDR programs.
Sukanya Podder, a peacebuilding and reconciliation expert, makes an astute observation. She explains that animosities between ex-combatants and their communities are unintentionally promoted by the exclusion of these communities from the reintegration process.
Feelings of disempowerment and marginalization represent further difficulties for DDR. They sometimes are a direct result of stigmatization, which DDR programs already struggle with. Such programs don’t always address the historical anthropological explanations for youth violence and militarization. Prominent journalist Abdullah Dukuly explains that Child soldiers have “become more familiar with violence rather than academic study”. This makes their return to the streets a source of insecurity, especially when they depend on ex-combatant friends.
Another complication comes from the gap between war and post-conflict identities of child soldiers. The soldier identity may be difficult to relinquish, especially for the younger ones, who have no other identity. Furthermore, many of these child soldiers have assumed adult responsibilities and roles of partial leadership during the war. They are therefore reluctant to transition to a civilian identity, where they become treated as children. Placed under the authority of adult civilians, former child soldiers become unwilling to return to their communities. This occurs in response to a complete overthrow of their relations of power and authority previously experienced during the war. They therefore give false information to tracing agents, further complicating the task of reunification and reintegration.
Due to the proximity between adults and children in rehabilitation camps, the possibility of re-recruitment of former child soldier rises. The security of those camps is poor: this undermines efforts to separate children from the influence of fighting groups. In this setting, children are vulnerable to abuse, continued violence and re-recruitment.
Finally, DDR of girl-child soldiers presents a particular case: many were sexually abused, used as sex slaves or “bush wives”. The return to their communities is difficult. They’re perceived as “sullied” and unfit for marriage, particularly when they were pregnant or had children of their own. They were not likely to declare themselves for DDR in fear of stigmatisation.
The gun collection dilemma, a complication for DDR of child soldiers, presents more difficulties for girls. Lots of disarmament and demobilization programs enforce a ‘one man one weapon’ policy. The policy requires each combatant to present a weapon in order to be eligible for DDR. This creates a dilemma between the need to include as many child soldiers as possible in the DDR process, and the need to collect as many weapons as possible. In this context, weapons become hoarded by militia leaders, who give them out to their affiliates. These affiliates can in turn apply for DDR benefits, leading to the exclusion of children, especially girls, from such programmes.
To conclude, there are many difficulties for the successful reintegration of child combatants. Finding themselves in extremely vulnerable positions in post-conflict settings, they are often marginalized. Their needs become overlooked, and they return to a life of poverty and crime.
To improve DDR efforts, reintegration should be supported by long-term funding mechanisms. The process should include the empowering of local communities along with returning youth. Rehabilitation should include traditional socio-cultural healing mechanisms. As argued by the Kirsten Gislesen, the basis for regional peace in West Africa can be provided only through a systematic and regional disarmament programme, backed by strong peace agreements.
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-Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers. “Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers.” United Nations Secretariat: Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (2018)
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Adrien is a third year War Studies student at King's College, London. He researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.