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The National Interest vs. Child Soldiers

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For the second consecutive year, President Barack Obama has waived a Congressionally-mandated ban on military aid to four countries known to entrap and exploit child soldiers. Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Yemen and the newly independent nation of South Sudan will receive more than 200 million dollars in US military aid in 2012.   The U.S. Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, effective in 2010, bans the government from providing military resources and aid to countries that recruit soldiers younger than 18; but it also allows a presidential waiver in cases of "the national interest."    The failed state of Somalia, known to use child soldiers on all sides of its civil conflict, will also receive military aid.   In this case the aid will be channeled to the Transitional Federal Government through the State Department's peacekeeping account, thus avoiding accountability to the Child Soldiers Prevention Act.

      Last year, the press had to dig news out of the White House to learn of the President's waiver for the same four countries (except Sudan in 2010, South Sudan in 2011), a waiver apparently given "over the objections of the State Department's democracy and human rights officials."   The justification provided was simply "national security interests."   It was tempered, as is the recent one, by the Administration's intention of giving the four countries one more year   "to improve" their war crime record of exploiting children in military service.


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The reality    

More than 300,000 children between the ages of 8 and 18 are trapped as child soldiers in over 30 global conflicts in Africa, Asia, Colombia and Peru.   Further, the number of armed groups exploiting children in war has increased from 40 in 1960 to 57 in 2007.    Most child soldiers are abducted from agriculture fields, enroute to school or market, or when their village is attacked. A smaller number of children join for reasons of extreme poverty and hunger, fleeing family violence, revenge for enemy brutality, and, in the case of some boys, respect from male elders.

      What most people do not realize is how large a percentage of child soldiers are girls, an estimated 40 percent, who are exploited like boy soldiers as servants, spies, and soldiers.   In addition, girls are taken into sex slavery by boy soldiers, adult soldiers and commanders. In Sri Lanka, more than 43 percent of 50,000 children in armed groups were girls, a finding determined during peace talks between warring parties and UNICEF.

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      Entire generations of children across the world have already been destroyed by this crisis, asserts international affairs and Latin American specialist Dr.Waltraud Morales. She adds that armed groups target children for their wars because children, and moreso girls because of sex discrimination, are "obedient, vulnerable, and malleable."   Children can be more easily indoctrinated into being the next generation of armed rebels and terrorists.   Child soldiers are cheap because they are unpaid and eat less than adults; and they provide functions such as cooking, cleaning, and portering, thus freeing up adult soldiers for more rigorous fighting.   With the prevalence of light but deadly weapons, girls as well as boys are trained for combat. In a 2002 survey, nearly half the interviewed girls in armed groups described their primary role as a "fighter."

       Despite their utility as fighters and servants, girl soldiers are raped, prostituted, mutilated, infected with STDs, including HIV/AIDS, and more often than not left pregnant by soldiers.   Many are permanently injured and will suffer lifelong pain as a result of multiple rapes.   Returning to their villages and homes, numerous girls have reported that they are rejected as filthy and immoral, and they are blamed for disgracing family and community honor. Even more punished are those girls who return pregnant or with children born of rape.   Losing family and social support, they are compelled to turn to prostitution or stay with an abusive ex-soldier "husband" to raise their child and survive.   Thus, the full cycle of misogyny entraps girls ruthlessly violated as child soldiers and then viciously punished when returning home.   In contrast to the outcast plight of girl soldiers, many boy soldiers earn a manly status in their communities.

      The 2011 Liberian Nobel Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee, wrote recently of her work with ex-child soldiers of Charles Taylor's army during Liberia's civil war.   She learned quickly, through sustained discussions with the children, that many young boys joined the rebellion to prove they were "a real man" and came back to win respect from the male elders and community leaders.   She assails the patriarchal nexus between violence, weapons, and manhood that drew many former boy soldiers into this brutal macho cycle as a way of life. Many of the girls she assisted were "child wives" of the ex-soldiers and had been abducted, raped and beaten into submission.   With no exit, each girl was "caught up in a spiral of one individual trying to prove his "maleness," a trap that Gbowee learned led some girls to use violence "as a means of coping" with their lives.

      Employing children, by whatever means, in armed conflict is an internationally recognized crime against humanity.   It is a crime that hardens and turns many boys into drug-addicted, almost incorrigibly violent gang members and torments girls with constant sexual exploitation, severe injury, child pregnancy, and rejection by their community. Despite this incontestable, public knowledge, the Administration   -- including President Obama with two daughters the age of girl soldiers, National Security Council Adviser Samantha Powers who lobbied for the air war in Libya to protect citizens, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visibly moved by sexual crimes against women and girls when she visited the DRC in 2009 -- continues its downward spiral into the underworld of wrecking African children's lives, in the name of "national interest."

      Let us hope that the "Occupy"" events -- now in nearly 1000 cities of the world --- will dent the armor of "national interest" and open up global dialogue to the 99%, who see militarism and elite economic interests as poisoning our well-being, most especially that of women and children.


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Pat Hynes chairs the Board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.   She is a retired Professor of Environmental Health and has most recently published War and the Tragedy of the Commons click here




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H. Patricia Hynes, a retired Professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health, is on the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice
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