In over 30 conflict zones today there are estimated to be upwards of 300,000 children used to support military activities as porters, sentries, sex slaves, spies, and combatants. What are the factors that might hinder attempts to curb the use of child soldiers, to prevent their recruitment, and to successfully reintegrate ex-combatants into their communities?

In over 30 conflict zones today there are estimated to be upwards of 300,000 children used to support military activities as porters, sentries, sex slaves, spies, and combatants. On June 1, 2007, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted an event on the use, prevention, and reintegration of child soldiers around the world. The event featured experts working in the field, each of whom approached the issue of child soldiers from a different perspective. These differing perspectives underscored the complexities inherent to the child soldier problem, as attempts to curb the use of child soldiers, to prevent their recruitment, and to successfully reintegrate ex-combatants into their communities continue to challenge practitioners and advocates.

David J. Smith, senior program officer in the Education program at USIP; Betty Bigombe, Jennings Randolph senior fellow at USIP and a lead negotiator in the ongoing conflict in northern Uganda; Jimmie Briggs, journalist and activist on the child soldiers issue and author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War; Sarah Michael, social development specialist with the Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Program (MDRP) at the World Bank; Michael Wessells, senior child protection advisor for the Christian Children’s Fund, professor of Clinical Population and Family Health at Columbia University, and author of Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection; and Chris Blattman, Jennings Randolph peace scholar at USIP and co-director and principal investigator of the Survey of War Affected Youth all presented at this event. Bigombe acted as discussant, offering her unique perspective as a Ugandan citizen who has negotiated with child soldier recruiters. This USIPeace Briefing summarizes the discussion at this event.

Opening Remarks

Bigombe opened the discussion by encouraging the audience to consider the issue of child soldiers within a broad context that includes prevention. Recruitment of child soldiers by non-governmental armed groups poses a significant problem for prevention because international human rights law does not bind these armed groups; they are not state actors. Bigombe also refuted the notion that some child soldiers make a positive choice to join armed groups: "This is not a choice," she said, "when you have nothing else… it’s not a choice. It’s the situation [of poverty] that propels you." Bigombe warned that children who have known nothing other than violence are vulnerable, as they are often ripe for recruitment into other violent organizations, gangs, or terrorist groups. Overall, she presented to the audience the broad context of examining the issue of child soldiers and encouraged reexamining some of the traditional approaches to prevention and reintegration.

Panel I: Looking at Child Soldiers Through the Lens of Age and Gender

Sarah Michael: MDRP and Older Adolescents

Sarah Michael, Social Development Specialist at the World Bank, discussed her work with the Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Program (MDRP). MDRP is a multi-agency effort to demobilize and reintegrate approximately 450,000 former combatants in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Michael identified three aspects of traditional reintegration strategies that could use improvement. The first is the lack of tailored support for girls who have been exploited during conflict; the second is a lack of adequate psychosocial assistance, and the third is a lack of customized aid for adolescents and older youth. Michael focused her discussion on this third issue: what are appropriate reintegration programs for returned child soldiers who are older adolescents?

The reintegration process takes a few years, so someone who is released from an armed group at 17 years old may be in their 20s by the time they complete their participation in a reintegration program. In one of the programs Michael was involved in, 80 percent of child soldier beneficiaries were above the age of majority by the time they finished the reintegration program. These older adolescents face an onslaught of responsibilities almost immediately after they return to their families: they are expected to take on household duties and to generate income. Michael said that in Rwanda, about 10 percent of child soldiers had spouses and/or children; in Burundi, about 25 percent of child soldiers were heads of households, being the primary income generator for either their siblings or their spouse and children. For these older adolescents, former education is rarely a realistic reintegration option to consider (a family’s primary income generator cannot spend all day in school). As an alternative to placing older former child soldiers in classrooms, Michael urged that she and her colleagues focus on economic and social reintegration programs.

Economic and Social Reintegration Programs for Older Youth

Despite the fact that many reintegration programs treat economic and social reintegration programs as separate approaches (i.e. vocational training to promote economic needs, and sports events to encourage social integration), Michael noted that economic reintegration promotes social reintegration. This is particularly true in the case of girls who became mothers while they were associated with an armed group, usually as a result of rape or sexual slavery. When they return to their communities after having had a child during their servitude, they face enormous social stigma. Michael explained that if these mothers are able to make even a small economic contribution to the community, people’s perceptions of these women change. Economic contribution combats stigma, pushes the social reintegration process further along, and reminds a community of the value that young, hard-working people possess.

Michael went on to describe some techniques of economic reintegration. Vocational training and informal education such as apprenticeships are popular models. Formal education can sometimes be an option when reintegration programs provide stipends and facilitate the individual’s admission and attendance. Michael said that at the World Bank, they are working hard to understand a different kind of income-generating opportunity that takes place through the provision of small-enterprise skills training to help an individual start up a self-employment venture.

Michael described three popular self-employment models that are used in reintegration programs in Central Africa: animal rearing, crop farming, and small trade or kiosk ownership. Michael noted that the most significant challenge to success in these income-generating activities is a lack of formal education. If a child is not literate or not numerate, keeping track of stock, dealing with suppliers, and managing financial flows can be almost impossible. Also, a child’s relationship with his family can be a significant hurdle to getting a small business off the ground. Very poor families may resent the former child soldier, who they perceive to have suddenly won a stock of supplies and money. The child, wanting to be part of the family, is likely to acquiesce if family members try to take advantage. Returned child soldiers are also more likely to allow their customers to purchase items on loan or with IOUs for the same reason: returned child soldiers are, Michael said, eager to be socially integrated and reluctant to be perceived as hostile or aggressive.

Emerging Wisdom

Michael concluded her presentation with some thoughts on the early wisdom that has emerged from her work and that of others in the reintegration of former child soldiers in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The first piece of wisdom Michael identified is what she calls the "quartet of decision-making." This is the process through which the child, his family or spouse, a community elder and the project worker decide together what the best enterprise will be for that child. Michael said that this process covers all the different elements of the child’s social environment and enables him to feel that he has the support of all the important groups in his life. Michael added that she and her colleagues believe that this decision-making process has led to truly intelligent choices about appropriate enterprises for former child soldiers. They have been tracking these enterprises for many months (years in some cases), and they appear to be doing well.

A second piece of emerging wisdom concerns training practices. In some cases, programs have provided specialized technical training according to the chosen enterprise (animal rearing, small business, crop farming, etc.) as well as group training sessions that cover all enterprises. Michael said that this approach is highly valuable because in most households, especially poor households, you must possess a multi-faceted survival strategy to hedge against risks like draught or animal illness. This is connected to what Michael identified as the third piece of emerging wisdom: multidimensionality. Reintegration programs require an approach that does not say to a child, "This is what you are going to do for the rest of your life," Michael said. It is better to leave the children open to change, and if we can give them the skills to change their lives, we should. A former child soldier may start with a kiosk because he knows that is the fastest way to turn a profit, but because he learned some farming basics at the same time as his small business training, he can switch to farming after a few months.

Michael said that while the World Bank’s MDRP team has begun to incorporate gender considerations into their monitoring and evaluation framework, they have not yet included measures to determine whether they are successful in delivering reintegration programs that are age-appropriate. This is one obvious area for improvement. Another possible enhancement, Michael said, would be to provide follow-up training to give ex-combatants an opportunity to ask questions after they have begun their work. Michael also said that more accelerated education programs in basic literacy and numeracy are necessary.

Michael concluded by saying that for her and her colleagues, success means going to a village and asking "Who are the ex-combatants here?" and hearing the reply: "We had some, but I can’t remember who they are anymore."

Discussion: Betty Bigombe

Bigombe noted that in addition to the considerations that Sarah Michael mentioned, she felt compelled to bring up the importance of the former child soldier’s experience during their time with the armed group. Bigombe said that she saw in Uganda an atmosphere of competition among child soldiers in the bush over who could exhibit the most violence and brutality, because that was the best way to gain recognition and respect from their superiors within the LRA. Should reintegration programs treat the children who were most engaged in brutality the same as children who were on the periphery of the violence? Bigombe added that she has seen outright hostility from communities towards returning child soldiers, usually because the community had been seriously victimized by an armed group. The community’s willingness to accept former child soldiers among them will vary, and understanding these attitudes is critical to the success of reintegration programs.

Jimmie Briggs: The Double-Trauma of Girl Soldiers

Journalist and advocate Jimmie Briggs was first introduced to the issue of child soldiers on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), then known as Zaire, when he was a journalist for Life Magazine. Despite prevailing perceptions of outsiders, Briggs noted that he saw equal numbers of boys and girls holding weapons on the frontlines in Zaire’s emerging guerilla war. Briggs said that he was compelled by the thought that these young people were being sacrificed and exploited for causes that they likely did not understand. Briggs spent the next several years traveling to Rwanda, Uganda, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and back to the DRC in an effort to better understand what factors draw children into war and to identify what we can learn from their individual experiences. Prior to his involvement with child soldiers, Briggs worked as a journalist reporting on youth violence and gang culture in the United States. He said that while American gang violence got significant attention from the press, he struggled with the reality that news media and other outlets were reluctant to engage with the child soldiers issue: "They’re not our kids," was a common reply to Briggs’s requests to report on youth in conflict around the world. Briggs persisted because he believed there might be parallels between how child soldiers are successfully or unsuccessfully reintegrated into their communities abroad and the strategies used in the United States to help children cope with the violence that they encounter in their lives.

Briggs said that the most pressing issue for him has been the use of girls in war. Everywhere he traveled, Briggs encountered former child soldiers who were girls. The norm for girl soldiers, he said, is to fight alongside the boys during the day, and to be subjected to sexual violence at night. This is the "double-trauma" that girl soldiers experience. Girls who survive their experience as child soldiers may have a child or children, usually born when the mothers were extremely young; they may be incapable of ever having children as a result of the abuses they suffered; and they may have one or several sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including AIDS. Briggs discussed the need for a greater response to the special needs of girl soldiers, especially counseling. Briggs said that he saw many reintegration programs in Africa where there was no space for girls to talk about the experiences they had: they may be counseled the same as boys regarding their experience as child soldiers, but they are not counseled as rape victims, they are not counseled as child mothers, nor are they routinely tested for AIDS and other STDs.

Briggs read two excerpts from his book, Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go To War. One passage recounted the life a boy named Gueso who was a young teenager in Colombia; the other told the story of a girl named Ginny in Rwanda, who had been a victim of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide and contracted AIDS. Briggs’s accounts of the personal narratives of these two individuals demonstrated the variety of methods to illustrate and communicate the problem of child soldiers around the world.

Discussion: Betty Bigombe

Bigombe added that returned child soldiers who become mothers while in armed groups (oftentimes at an abhorrently young age) confront major social stigma for having sex at a young age and outside of traditional marriage. The effects can be devastating. These mothers face the choice of whether or not to live with the father of their child–their "bush husband." Bigombe said that situations like this can play out in a number of ways; sometimes the girl will feel that she has no other choice but to remain with her bush husband; other times she cannot bear to look at him. Sometimes the girl’s parents or other community members are asked to take care of the child if the girl is very young.

Many more complexities were drawn out during the question and answer session for this first panel, including the problem of victimization and reconciliation, the possibility that former child soldiers may not be able to return home to their families and communities because of security concerns or because their families are gone, the possible role that the arts might play in the psychosocial services that are provided to former child soldiers, and the fact that in many places in Africa, there are no detailed birth records and therefore it is sometimes very difficult to know a supposed child soldier’s true age.

Panel II: Is the Evidence There? Examining the Gaps in Research and Strategies

Michael Wessells: Psychosocial Needs and the Story of Resilience

Michael Wessells, Senior Child Protection Officer at the Christian Children’s Fund and professor at Columbia University, provided an overview of what, from an evidentiary perspective, we have learned about reintegration and where the limits of our knowledge are most apparent. According to one longitudinal life-outcomes study that Wessells is familiar with, which was conducted by Neil Boothby in Mozambique and funded in part by USIP, the majority of child soldiers are not "damaged goods." They are not a lost generation, Wessells said, and they do not all pride themselves on killing and violence. They do, however, have problems with adjustment, and this is where reintegration programs should focus their efforts.

Wessells, who is a professor of psychology, discussed the psychosocial needs of demobilized child soldiers. For children who say that they cannot sleep because they are visited by the spirits of the people who they have killed, sometimes the best approach is a ritual of spiritual cleansing performed by a local healer. Whereas western psychologists might diagnose these children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Wessells noted that such diagnoses carry little weight within the communities where he has worked with returned child soldiers. Community-based strategies are more effective in the reintegration of these children than approaches that are rooted in Western clinical psychology. Wessells noted that there are some child soldiers who return to their communities without going through any reintegration program at all (this is sometimes called "spontaneous" reintegration), and that there is very little research to understand how these children are able to integrate on their own without any formal support. Wessells also reported that despite the prevalence of the discourse on trauma and PTSD, fewer than 10 percent of people who have a life-threatening experience actually develop full-blown PTSD. A parallel storyline to the dominant discourses of trauma, Wessells said, is the story of resilience, coping, and adaptation. While there does need to be a balance between the emphases on these two stories, Wessells said that a child’s capacity to adapt is often remarkable.

Wessells suggested that we have done a insufficient job of listening to children themselves. Too often, adult protection specialists and donors impose programs without first trying to understand what the children think about their own situation and what they believe they need. We need to get a handle on the diversity of experiences of these young people, because, Wessells contends, the idea that all child soldiers are damaged goods and that they are all seriously traumatized is incorrect. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. Wessells recounted a story from Angola, where the general belief among almost all child protection officers was that there were no girl soldiers involved in the decades of fighting there. But a joint research project by UNICEF and Christian Children’s Fund found that in fact an estimated 10,000 girls were used as child soldiers, though none had participated in the formal demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programs. These girls had preferred to remain invisible rather than be identified as a participant in the armed forces. Wessells told this story to emphasize the need for informal programming and support in addition to the formal reintegration programs that put people in the spotlight.

Wessells reported that the tensions and stresses of current living often outweigh the residues of whatever trauma a young person may have experienced during their time with the armed forces. He told the story of a girl from Sierra Leone who had been abducted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) at 12 years old, forced to be a soldier’s "wife," had a child, became HIV positive, and passed on HIV to her child. Wessells indicated that the struggle this young woman faced upon her attempted reintegration into the community was, in her own words, far more stressful than her attempts to "cope" with what she had experienced in the bush. The stresses of daily life took precedent.

Wessells suggested that reintegration programs could build upon the unique knowledge base and survival strategies that children may have developed while they were involved with an armed group. Former child soldiers who were organizers, leaders, recruiters, or held other active roles apart from the violence will possess a highly developed sense of agency and social power. If reintegration programs ignore this, they diminish the skills that the children already hold and, in Wessells’s judgment, do more harm than good.

Chris Blattman: Iconography and Reality

Chris Blattman, co-founder of the Survey of War Affected Youth, opened by suggesting that 2006-2007 was the year in which the child soldier became an American pop icon: we saw many more editorials and more significant news coverage of child soldiers than ever before, one of the most critically acclaimed books of the year was a novel about a child soldier (What is the What by Dave Eggers) and you can now buy Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier at your local Starbucks. Iconic symbols of child soldiers have emerged both in the news media and advocacy circles: the drug-crazed teenager who wields an AK-47 and believes he has magical immunity from bullets; an emphasis on the youngest of the young who are conscripted into armed forces; and the manic, barbaric rebel leader.

A Lost Generation?

Blattman said that the assumption that child soldiers are a "lost generation" pervades the community that works with former child soldiers. It is not clear, however, what is the rule and what is the exception. There are certainly many children who had terrible experiences and were deeply harmed during their time with an armed group, but this does not mean we should categorize all child soldiers as belonging to a "lost generation." Blattman reflected upon his research in Northern Uganda, which demonstrated that traumatization was not the norm, but rather that resilience was the norm. This supports what Wessells discussed earlier, and Blattman said it suggests a need to move away from broad-based psychosocial programs to much smaller and highly specialized psychosocial programs for the severely traumatized, while putting greater emphasis on education and economic reintegration for the more resilient ex-combatants.

In Uganda, a large number of the approximately 66,000 youth abducted into the LRA either escaped or were released within two weeks, Blattman reported. He said this to emphasize the heterogeneity of experiences that he found throughout his research in Uganda. Some returned child soldiers even assumed significant, positive leadership roles within their communities after reintegration. One significant obstacle, however, is the low level of literacy among the older ex-combatants. Blattman echoed what Sarah Michael had said about the need for greater specialized literacy training programs for older youth.

Discussion: Betty Bigombe

Bigombe emphasized the diversity of experiences of child soldiers that both Blattman and Wessells discussed, and she noted that this diversity applies to the nature of their involvement with armed groups as well as to their experience after release. Bigombe added that almost all of the demobilized child soldiers she met in Uganda said that they wanted to go back to school; that was their first wish for themselves. Bigombe took it upon herself to visit several schools in Northern Uganda and saw that there were high drop-out rates and frequent repetition of grade levels for the returned child soldiers. Bigombe suggested that this is often due to teachers not knowing how to deal with the behaviors or attitudes of former child soldiers in the classroom. If a student acts out, the first impulse is to expel him.

Many more themes were introduced during the question and answer session for the second panel, including the impact of the International Criminal Court’s indictments on the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Uganda, the potential for peace education studies at the primary school level in countries that have experienced conflict, and the process through which demobilization occurs.

Future Directions

Throughout the day, a consensus emerged regarding the heterogeneity of experiences that child soldiers have during their time with armed forces. All of the participants emphasized the need for tailored programs aimed at specific groups that are sometimes overlooked amid the stereotypical iconography of child soldiers that Chris Blattman discussed. These groups include girls, older youth, and the resilient, adaptable youth who may even possess strong leadership qualities. Betty Bigombe reminded the group that there is still much to learn about the process of reintegration, as it is still a relatively new undertaking for the international community. We need to work harder at listening to the affected children and understanding their positions and needs. Prevention is, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of this issue because it is tied to so many factors, particularly chronic poverty and the mass availability of small arms and light weapons. We all must be advocates, Bigombe said, to prevent future incidence of child soldiering around the world.




This USIPeace Briefing was written by Sarah Dye, a research assistant in the Education program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.


The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.

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