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Friday, May 11, 2012 - 05.39 GMT
Psychosocial problems of child soldiers I

By: Prof. Daya Somasundaram & Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunge


War in the 21st century is not only more prevalent, but more tragic. With children's involvement, warlords, terrorists, and rebel leaders alike are finding that conflicts are easier to start. A particularly troubling aspect is not only what happens during the fighting, but the legacy it leaves for children after the fighting is done. That is, recovery from traumas of war is hard enough; it's all the more difficult when the soldier in question is a child.
Sri Lanka has its share of obligations in rehabilitating and addressing the psychosocial problems of those innocent Tamil children, exploited by an extremist terrorist outfit - LTTE. The LTTE was ruthless in its pursuit for a mono-ethnic state, as death and disaster became a norm in the North and East for three decades. Women and children were the most affected either turned into suicide bombers or forced to the battlefront as cannon fodders.
The following article complied by Prof. Daya Somasundaram and Dr. Ruwan Jayathunge provides a clear overview of the child soldiers issue.
Using children in armed conflicts has been reported in many countries around the world. Various rebel groups, and occasionally states, in Africa, Asia and Latin America exploit children in their armed conflicts. It is estimated that some 300,000 children - boys and girls under the age of 18 - are today involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide (Global Report on Child Soldiers 2001). Often these children are kidnapped from their parents and indoctrinated, given brief training and along with the adult rebel cardres, sent to fight with the fully trained, fully equipped government forces.
Many child solders get killed in the war. Those who survive suffer deep physical and psychological traumas. These traumas affect their social and cognitive development. When the war ends, they are released or they escape, the children often try to reunite with their families when possible. Some go through a process of demobilization and rehabilitation. Despite re-education, rehabilitation and social integration processes, a large number of child solders continue to suffer from the adverse effects of war.
Despite the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989, war is an adult male preoccupation that exploits children. The phenomena of child soldiers can be found manifesting in situations of horizontal inequalities between groups with clearly defined cultural or ethnic identities. Social instability that can lead to violent conflict grows out of severe inequalities in political, economic and social dimensions between groups. Ethnic and cultural deprivations can then become powerful mobilizing agents.
The weaker and less resourced rebel forces, but at times, even states, can resort to using children as soldiers. Often in situations of manpower shortage, where adult fighters have been killed, or not willing or available, leaders in the weaker party may turn to women and children in asymmetrical warfare. The proliferation of modern weaponry which allows even children to handle them with ease (The AK 47or T 56 assault rifles or small landmines are so light and easy to handle that children can be easily trained in their use), and of the arm traders in ensuring their supply is also crucial in this complex equation. A huge economic profit from the arms trade, the manufacture and route of supply often involves the international community. Further, the level of the conflict has reached considerable sophistication. Training and arms are from various developed countries. Children on the frontlines become the pawns in adult male games.
The conscription of children is a form of physical, emotional and moral abuse, more so in the case of "suicide by proxy" (De Silva, 1998). However, it may not be enough to just merely condemn or prohibit the recruitment of children, but to ask the deeper question, "Why do children join"? It is as important to understand the context, particularly the systemic factors under which children become soldiers and work to improve these conditions if we are to effectively prevent it. At the same time, better understanding of these causal factors and the condition of the child soldiers, would lead to designing a more comprehensive and effective demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration (back with their families and community) programme for them. The underlying socio-political, economical and psychological factors that compel children to fight can be quite complex. They can be divided into push and pull factors. The use of push-pull categorization has been used in relation to child labour by the International Labour Organization's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and more specifically child soldiers .
In war and violent conflict, children are traumatized by such common experiences as frequent shelling, bombing, helicopter strafing, round-ups, cordon-off and search operations, deaths, injury, destruction, mass arrests, detention, shootings, grenade explosions and landmines. Studies focusing on children in war situations for example in Mozambique (Richman et al, 1988) and Philippines (CRC, 1986) report considerable psychological sequelae.
The impact of the war on their growing minds, and the resulting traumatization and brutalization will be decisive in making them more likely to become child soldiers. In addition to the direct effects on children, war also results in collective trauma at the family and community levels. There is a breakdown of family and community processes, support structures and networks, ethical and moral values, cohesion and purpose. In this uncertain, insecure and hopeless environment, children are more likely to look for alternate opportunities, follow alluring possibilities and be compelled to make unwholesome choices. Brutalization resulting from growing up with violence, impunity and injustice with vulnerability, fear for their safety and real threats would motivate them to protect themselves (and in their imagination, their families and community) with arms and training.
Many families that are displaced, without incomes, jobs and food may encourage one of their children to join so that at least they have something to eat. There is a higher incidence of malnutrition and ill health in the war torn areas. Allocation and distribution of health care facilities (staff, drugs, equipment) to some areas may be markedly disproportional. Education and schools become disorganized. There are often real or perceived inequalities in opportunities for and access to further education, sports, foreign scholarships or jobs for some groups compared to other more privileged groups. For the more conscious and concerned children, seeing or experiencing these deprivations for their family and community would push them into joining an armed resistance group.
Socoicultural factors
Another potent push factor is oppressive social practices where the lower classes and castes are suppressed by the higher, who hold power and authority. For many from the lower classes, joining then becomes a way out of this oppressive system. Similarly, for younger females who experience the patriarchal oppression against their sex, it is a means of escape and `liberation'.
Pull factors
Children because of their age, immaturity, curiosity and love for adventure are susceptible to 'Pied Piper" enticement through a variety of psychological methods. Public displays of war paraphernalia, funerals and posters of fallen heroes; speeches and videos, particularly in schools; heroic, melodious songs and stories, drawing out feelings of patriotism and creating a martyr cult create a compelling milieu. Severe restrictions on leaving areas create a feeling of entrapment as well as ensure that there is a continuing source of recruits. Military type training instill a military thinking.
In war and violent circumstances, sociocultural and religious leaders and institutions do not protect or protest against child recruitment. The actions of the State in using indiscriminate violence such as heavy firepower, shooting, bombing, shelling, detention and torture against a community is a powerful motivating factor.
Psychological Consequences
Apart from death and injury, the recruitment of children becomes even more abhorrent when one sees the psychological consequences. In those that came for treatment, we found a whole spectrum of conditions from neurotic conditions like somatization, depression, PTSD to more severe reactive psychosis and Malignant PTSD, which leaves them as complete psychological and social wrecks.
Numerous studies have shown that child soldiers are at high risk of developing PTSD. Okello, Onen, and Musisiv (2007) found that 27% - 34.9 % of Ugandan child soldiers suffered PTSD. Kohrt et el. (2011) found that 75 of the Nepali child soldiers (52.3%) met the symptom cutoff score for depression, 65 (46.1%) met the score for anxiety 78 (55.3%) met the criteria for PTSD, 55 (39%) met the criteria for general psychological difficulties, and 88 (62.4%) were functionally impaired. A study conducted in Sri Lanka found higher rates of PTSD in children than adults who are conscripted.
The emotional consequences for the majority of the children interviewed included sad moods, preoccupations, suicidal thoughts and fears. Most of them experienced loss in relation to the death of members of their family and social status as a result of their actions. This study also found that while all children in Sri Lanka grew up as a generation knowing nothing but war, and being subjected to indoctrination so they would feel hatred against their enemy, the children who were conscripted were from families living in poverty.
Children from privileged families either migrated out of the area or would have been released if they were conscripted (de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001).
Garbarino & Kostelny, (1993) suggest that experiences related to political violence and war might constitute a serious risk for the well-functioning family. Most of the child soldiers were separated from their parents for a long period and many have lost the sense of family belongingness. Their family ties are wrecked. These children are separated from their cultural, social and moral identity, and it makes them vulnerable to psychological and social ill effects. Those with PTSD have intrusive memories of the war, flashbacks, emotional arousal, emotional numbing and various other anxiety related symptoms. Many avoid places and conversations related to their past experiences. Some children are reluctant to go back to their native villages may be due to shame or guilt.
Avoidance, as described by the former child soldiers, included actively identifying social situations, physical locations or activities that had triggered an emergence of post-traumatic stress symptoms in the past, and making efforts to avoid them in the future. One of the strongest traumatic re-experience triggers was physical location: some former child soldiers are now avoiding places where they witnessed or participated in violent and inhumane atrocities.
War affects children in all the ways it affects adults, but also in different ways combat trauma could affect children in all aspects of their lives causing long term effects that are now termed complex PTSD. Common symptoms would include affect dysregulation characterized by persistent dysphoria, chronic suicidal preoccupation, self-injury and explosive anger; dissociative episodes (which in African countries can be in the form of trance or possession states); somatization, memory disturbances, sense of helplessness and hopelessness; isolation and withdrawal, poor relationships, distrust and loss of faith.
Our observation has been that children are particularly vulnerable during their impressionable formative period, causing permanent scarring of their developing personality. Rebels have expressed their preference for younger recruits as "they are less likely to question orders from adults and are more likely to be fearless, as they do not appreciate the dangers they face. Their size and agility makes them ideal for hazardous and clandestine assignments.
Some of the child soldiers have managed to escape from their country but are still living with past memories of war. A study conducted by Kanagaratnam et al (2005) focuses on ideological commitment and posttraumatic stress in a sample of former child soldiers from Sri Lanka living in exile in Norway. Using a sample of 20 former child soldiers the researchers tried to find a correlation between ideological commitment and developing mental health problems.
Usually female child soldiers face hardships in the war front. Female child soldiers in Uganda, Sierra Leone and in Congo were frequently used as sex slaves and they were repetitively raped by the adult fighters. The LTTE used female child soldiers to commit murders when they attacked endangered villagers. There were groups of female LTTE carders which mainly consisted of underage girls called 'Clearance Party'. The Clearance Party advances after the assault group; their main task was to kill the wounded civilians or soldiers by using machetes. As the researcher Hamblen (1999) pointed out Gender appears to be a risk factor for PTSD; several studies suggest girls are more likely than boys to develop PTSD
Attachment Problems
When the children were forcibly removed from their parents many children experienced separation anxiety. Some developed into full blown symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder. These children repeatedly cry, attempt to run away from the captors, they have fear of being alone, and sometimes troubled by nightmares. The senior carders use physical violence and intimidation to train the newly recruited child soldiers. The British Psychologist John Bowlby believed that attachment behaviors are instinctive and will be activated by any conditions that seem to threaten the achievement of proximity, such as separation, insecurity and fear.
Many ex-child combatants have apathy and poor attachment with their parents. The parents often feel that their child has changed dramatically and he is unable to express love and warmth in return. Some express that there is an invisible wall between parents and the child. The child seems to have lost the sense of trust in adults and feels that he has lost his identity as a valuable member of the society. The child becomes oppositional, defiant, and impulsive and parents feel that the child acts as if adults don't exist in their world and does not look to adults for positive interactions. Some children had created bonds with their abductors during their stay with them and feel that they had better time with the militants than with the parents.
(Part II will appear tomorrow)
Courtesy: The Island






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Last modified: May 11, 2012.

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