You’re listening to Episode 22 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. In this episode, we’ll learn more about the issue of child soldiers and what we can do to help them.
In the first two seasons of this podcast, we covered many aspects of many kinds of human trafficking, like sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and illegal adoptions. But one form we haven’t discussed is the use of child soldiers. But even though we haven’t already covered this topic, you’ve probably heard a lot about it already. “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, was published in 2007 and did a lot to bring attention to the issue. Then there was the Stop Kony campaign in 2012 that went viral and sparked worldwide outrage against the recruitment and use of children as soldiers. The Stop Kony campaign gained support when it released a documentary called Kony 2012. This documentary revealed the terrible work of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, a militia that actively recruited and used child soldiers. The people who worked on the Stop Kony campaign hoped that their documentary would get a lot of public attention so that international government organizations would feel pressured into capturing and prosecuting Kony.
But the collective outcry died down, and it died down pretty quickly. When the
sequel to Kony 2012 was released, it was not a viral success like the first documentary. Kony was never captured and in 2017, the Lord’s Resistance Army had lost enough soldiers that they were no longer considered a threat. The Ugandan and American governments also declared that year that they would stop looking for Kony. He is still out there somewhere.
But the issue of child soldiers did not start or end with Joseph Kony and his army. When children are recruited as soldiers, it’s because they have less legal and physical power to defend themselves from forced recruitment. There are several estimates on the number of child soldiers in the world today, but they mostly agree that it is at least a few hundred thousand. According to the United Nations, a child soldier is any person below 18 years of age “associated with an armed force or armed group…recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.” Before I go any further, I want to clarify one thing. In some countries, like the United States, 17-year-olds can enlist in the military with their parents’ permission. So then, are they child soldiers? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that they are now a part of the military while still being a child. But no, in the sense that they were not forced to join the military; they joined because they wanted to and because their parents also approved of it. So they may be, in a literal sense, a “child soldier” for one year until they turn 18, but they are not the kind of “child soldier” that was forced or coerced into it. Child soldiers who were forced or coerced to join and are definitely victims of human trafficking are the focus of this episode. If you do believe that any soldier who is under 18 is automatically a victim of human trafficking -- especially since there is the widely held belief that anyone under 18 engaging in commercial sex is automatically a victim of sex trafficking -- that’s a debate that we can take up another time. If you’re interested, you can check out the Straight-18 campaign.
But why even focus on child soldiers? Well the first and most obvious answer is that it is a form of human trafficking. Human trafficking and child soldiers are often treated as two horrible, but different, issues. But if we go all the way back to our first episode, when we discussed the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s definition of human trafficking, we should remember that human trafficking is legally broken down into three parts: the act, the means, and the purpose. Recruiting a child to join a militant group by forcing or coercing them is a clear act, means, and purpose of human trafficking. But the issue of child soldiers is worth discussing for another reason too: in its very essence, child soldiering isn’t separate from human trafficking. It is a lot of forms of human trafficking and abuse rolled into one. It’s a form of labor trafficking, a lot of times sex trafficking, and child abuse that puts children in high-risk and often deadly situations. Even if they survive the conflict, they will have missed out on going to school and will very likely have become traumatized, which will only make it harder for them to pursue an education later on. Some child soldiers are even forced to kill their family members as an initiation to the military. The trauma of killing a loved one and not having a family to return to when the war ends only makes it harder for a child soldier to reintegrate into society. If that’s not worth fighting against, then I don’t know what is.
But where are these child soldiers, and who are they in the first place? According to the “2018 Children and Armed Conflict Report”, child soldiers are most common in the seven following countries: Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. But a country’s government is not the only source of child soldiers. The report also lists 56 non-governmental groups around the world that use children in their forces.
Back in 2015, the United Nations claimed that 4 out of 10 child soldiers are girls. This statistic is 3-years-old and it’s a pretty difficult to accurately report on human rights violations since they often go unreported. But even if this statistic isn’t the most up-to-date, it does tell us one thing: child soldiers are not always young boys carrying military-grade weapons. They can also be young girls who not only fight in armed conflict, but are also sexually abused. And the same goes for boys too; they are often sexually abused after being forced to join a militant group. Child soldiers may not always fight directly in a conflict. Sometimes they are cooks, messengers, human shields, or spies. This shows that the issue of child soldiers is already more complex than we may have previously thought.
The complexity of using child soldiers also brings up another interesting question: if it’s a combination of several types of human trafficking, then do we even need to distinguish between the different types? This was the topic of our first Instagram Story Debate that we hosted last Sunday. We had almost a 50-50 split on this question. Those who thought there was no need to distinguish between the different forms of human trafficking said that it wasn’t necessary because all forms are bad, and we should do something about all of them. But those who said we should distinguish between the different forms said that it’s important since we need to fight each form with an equal but different approach. Whatever opinion you side with, the use of child soldiers tells us one thing: fighting the issue is a lot more than simply taking away the weapon that has been given to a child and telling them they’re free. Since the child has been labor trafficked, they’ll need educational and financial support to move forward in life. If they’ve been sex trafficked or sexually abused in some other way while they were forced to fight, they’ll need mental and physical healthcare to help them work through their trauma.
So now that we know this, what can we do? Well, it turns out that there are quite a lot of things that we can do. If you live in a country that uses child soldiers, you can raise awareness among your fellow citizens or join an organization in your country. Even if you aren’t from one of the 46 countries that still have child soldiers, you can always join international organizations that fight the issue. There are organizations that allow you to sponsor a former child soldier by covering their basic living and education costs. While this is an option, it may be better to support organizations that are local to that particular child. That way, the child and their surrounding community are sure to get support that is specific to their situation and cultural context.
However you decide to approach the issue of child soldiers, it’s important to remember that there are plenty of things that you can do. You don’t have to be from one of the seven countries I mentioned earlier -- because like I said, there are 46 countries that allow some minors to enlist. You just have to have the desire to combat the issue of children forced into combat situations.
And in speaking of people who have a desire to put an end to human trafficking, we have our second Audible Audience segment! A listener from Indonesia sent in a clip to explain what his organization, Emancipate Indonesia, does to fight human trafficking, and why youth should get involved too. If you want to be featured in one of our episodes, just send a 30-second audio clip to email@example.com. Tell us your name, country, and what you or an organization you work for are doing to fight human trafficking. And without further ado, take it away, Gian.
Gian: Hi everyone, we are Emancipate Indonesia, an organization fighting modern slavery through youth-based engagements. We believe that slavery is very close to us, and it takes everyone to solve it. That's why we have been listening and working with government, NGOs, private sectors, and also researchers to discuss about the best way to tackle modern slavery. We believe that no one is less human than anyone, and we also believe that youth is the key to fight modern slavery. After all, we are all future frontiers.
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on September 16 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.org*, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.
*Our website is currently thetraffickingdispatch.org but this will change back to .com in a few weeks.