Challenges for a young continent
The use of children in armed conflict has become a symbol of the apparent brutality of warfare in Africa. They have become a powerful tool for child rights advocates, who lobby for the protection of children through the provision of essential services such as health care, education and social services. But taking children and youth out of the broader security debate has turned the issue into a soft humanitarian concern that rarely enters into discussions on African politics, militaries and economies. The danger in this lies in the fact that Africa is, demographically speaking, an extraordinarily young continent. The marginalisation of youth from the security debate is paralleled by their absence from political and economic agendas. In war-affected nations in particular, the priority of social sectors plummets while governments attend to the business of the war economy, leaving health and education in the hands of humanitarian agencies. At the same time, children and youth, being the majority, represent manpower for both governments and armed forces. Thousands of children involved in combat in Africa are in fact a symptom of instability deeply exaggerated by demographics.
The phenomenon of child soldiers has become a symbol of the apparent brutality of warfare in Africa, yet it is usually portrayed in an isolated manner without reference to the origins of conflict, analysis of the stakeholders or of the war economies that develop in protracted wars. One rarely hears, for example, that the Sierra Leones Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had its origins in student politics and in Freetown street culture, or that Ethiopias young soldiers participating in the border war with Eritrea are one of successive generations of young people co-opted into armed forces fighting different battles, or whether certain ethnic groups are targeted for recruitment by governments. It is usually acknowledged that the poor are more susceptible to forced recruitment than the elite. The literature is filled with testimonials, endless collections of horror stories and, occasionally, a little information about the sad state of health care and education in places where children are found serving in armed forces. Fundamental to the understanding of why and how children become involved in armed violence is some contextual understanding of local conceptions of childhood and youth, and how economies and politics have conspired to shape these. In this sense, a number of features of a young generation are relevant:
- What are the roles of children in the household, community and national economy, with reference to both income generating and non-income generating activities, including rural and urban labour? This is obviously linked to the existence of child labour, and what is locally considered necessary and acceptable work for children.1 Poverty is cited as the obvious reason for child labour, but demographics may also play an important role. Closely linked to this is the social and cultural identity of children, local conceptions of childhood and youth and the status, responsibility and entitlements that come with these.
- What is the political identity of children? What political activity has been undertaken by or on behalf of children and youth in local, national and international spheres? The Convention on the Rights of the Child2 and national advocacy efforts are, today, a universal point of reference. How have these drawn attention to children as a group discrete from class, ethnic or other identities? Student movements and other forms of participation of youth in politics also shape views of young people as agents or instruments of either violent or peaceful change.
These and other factors shape generational identity or the way in which children and youth are perceived and positioned by the society as a whole. It is important to point out that conceptions of children and youth are not static, but that they interact with historical, political and economic change, perhaps in the same way that Chabal and Daloz3 argue that ethnicity changes according to circumstances. For example, so-called tribal and racial divisions have been exaggerated or eliminated under colonial regimes for political endsprobably the most obvious example of this would be in the divide and control rationale of apartheid, which codified and instrumentalised apparent differences in dramatic ways.
For better or worse, children and youth are subject to instrumentalisation in that they can be used to serve particular political and economic agendas. The growing use of children and youth as an indicator of a poor state of human rights4 is more than an indicator of passivity, neglect or poor performance by governments in the social services, health and education sectors. It is also an indicator of the overall functioning of the state, of governance and the management of strategic resources. The mobilisation of children and youth into armed forces also belies the opportunities offered to young people in a war economy. This is not to imply that most children choose or are sent to fight as a survival strategy, but that social and economic protection have eroded to the point where youth intersect with adult politics.
From the perspective of millions of Sierra Leonean, Angolan and Congolese children, peace has become something mythical, or at best a distant memory. The novel absence of war is a jubilant but somehow uncertain state of affairs, brokered on high among generals, diplomats and other strangers, much heralded and sometimes accompanied by the puzzling but comparatively benign invasions of the UN. Over the past decade or longer, armed conflicts in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) wreaked destruction on their civilian populations, in the form of terror, death, families torn apart, destroyed infrastructure and distorted economies.
These conflicts are recognised for the fact that the lines between civilian and military targets have effectively been erased and violence runs roughshod over internationally accepted values and norms that would protect children and youth. The notion of collateral damage (usually used in reference to property and lives destroyed as a side-effect of warfare) has actually become moot. In all of these contexts, inherently youthful populations have been pillaged through the recruitment of young people into armed forces, some as frontline fighters. Damage to children and youth has become a predictable function of warfare in Africa and is now a field of study and area for specifically targeted humanitarian interventions. The danger lies in the fact that, even though they constitute the majority in most African states, children and youth remain marginalised from the security debate and treated as a non-political, non-military, soft issue.
Peacekeeping and peace building
For entire generations socialised in conditions of warfare, the incentives to build a peaceful society are no longer there by example. Values and norms have been shaped by decisions taken under conditions of brutality, deprivation and loss. Peace must be invented rather than restored, by and for youth themselves. For thousands of ex-combatants, the prospect of reintegration means first facing the disintegration of a way of life in whose order revolved around arms and violence.
Senior child protection advisors have been appointed to UN peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) and the DRC (MONUC), for the first time. Demobilisation and reintegration of children are becoming explicit points in peace agreements. In contrast, the Mozambique Peace Accord signed ten years ago made no mention whatsoever of children; this was considered an issue for humanitarian agencies to deal with. The mainstreaming of child rights into UN peacekeeping has undoubtedly shown some concrete improvements over past missions. Demobilisation centres in Sierra Leone, for example, had military observers who designated child focus officers, responsible for the immediate separation of children from adult combatants, channelling them to interim care centres and then into the family tracing and reunification network.
It would be valuable to know whether the accompanying oversight of child protection agencies by the UN in the form of the UN CPA has actually added value to child protection as a whole. Sierra Leone saw several highly publicised handovers of small numbers of abducted children co-ordinated by UNAMSIL, yet criticism is still being levelled at the UN for the failure to deal with the highly contentious problem of child prostitution associated with peacekeeping missions the world over. In a 2000 report on children in armed conflict, the secretary general recommended the appointment of a special ombudsperson to investigate and deal with allegations of peacekeeper perpetrated abuses.5 This was apparently greeted with outrage by some troop contributing states and was abandoned, suggesting a primacy of UN politics over human rights. The spotlight shifted recently when a joint UNHCR/Save the Children UK study revealed that exploitation is also rife on the civilian side, when aid workers in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were found to frequently demand sexual favours in return for essential food and supplies.6
Childrens rights quite easily become a political football in the peace game. Warring opponents would like to perpetuate the belief that their rivals evil agendas involve the mass enslavement of children and youth to send to the front lines. The media are naturally complicit in shaping international opinion. Child protection agencies running interim care centres for unaccompanied children in Sierra Leone have had to institute a no journalist policy in an attempt to fend off those hunting for younger victims of worse atrocities. The phenomenon of poster children scarcely even begins to describe the scale of the problem and borders on the pornographic. Inevitably, childrens issues become a powerful tool in the demonisation of rebel movements, while government practices may have been equally brutal. The end result is exploitation of a kind and further obstacles to dialogue. While there are compelling reasons to limit the credibility of certain stakeholders in peace processes, it is debatable whether the runaway appeal of stories centring on child victims of atrocities is a good motivator for international involvement. If a loose parallel between Mozambique and Sierra Leone could be drawn, the publicity that cast the RUF in such a terrible light was perhaps not equally cast on RENAMO (Mozambique National Resistance), who remained in productive dialogue with the opposition and the international community throughout the Mozambique peace process and were financially supported in their transformation to a political party. The 3,000 or so children associated with the RUF are one of many factors that polarised sentiments against the movement. It is doubtful that this would have been the case without media attention. The unfathomable political and economic dysfunction that causes the suffering of hundreds of thousands of children and the social and economic exclusion of millions of youth cannot be summed up in photos of ragged children. The photogenic nature of child soldiers makes them an inappropriate means of representing a much larger and more insidious problem. At the same time, the marginality of the issue (it is due to the barbarous abnormality of the enemy) permits governments to get away with signing international agreements with one hand and conducting a backlash against youth with the other.
The progress made is nonetheless encouraging. The critical symptom has been spotted and the directive to mainstream childrens rights is a step toward recognising the significance and proportions of what could be called the youth factor. But this is a long way from the full realisation that protecting childrens rights involves more than calling governments to answer for their poor performance in a few sectors. Acknowledging that childrens rights are majority rights means making children and youth stakeholders in conflict resolution and not simply a marginal element of the population in need of protection during the process. We cannot afford to treat the majority of Africans as apolitical, given their obvious political involvement. The assumption is not that children are voluntary agents of violence, but that their relative numbers mean that they are a politically significant element of the population and that the burden of care is more than most developing countries can manage, even with greater government commitment and resource allocation to the traditional sectors of health and education. Furthermore, the efficacy of international commitment and support is questionable in scenarios where states so freely hand over these decidedly un-strategic sectors of health and education to humanitarian agencies under the umbrella of humanitarian crisis.
Youth in the war economy
Widespread global condemnation of the use of children as soldiers and fierce advocacy efforts have culminated in the entry into force on 12 February 2002 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child7 on the involvement of children in armed conflict. States parties must now take all feasible measures to eliminate all but voluntary recruitment (under specific conditions) of under-18s into armed forces and to raise the legal age for direct participation in hostilities to 18.
Few would want to be seen to object to the principles of such an agreement. Estimates of the number of child soldiers involved in combat run in the region of 300,000. We hear of children being abducted, drugged, brainwashed, coerced, tortured and forced to commit acts against their communities that effectively sever their social contract at a tender age. The images and horror testimonials have pervaded the media in the run-up to the UN Special Session on Children. While images are valuable tools for advocacy, without which many humanitarian agencies would have only dry statistics with which to loosen the purse strings of donors, the emotive nature of media portrayals of child soldiers can obscure the malaise that lies behind them.
Child soldiers represent a political employment of children that can be explained in any number of ways: children, especially those living in poverty, are soft targets for recruitment when their families and communities are unable to protect them. It is relatively easy to swell the ranks of an army with children in situations where the burden of care of the society is not being borne. In some cases, young people do vote with their feet. In pursuit of a better life promising uniforms, salaries and respect, children may see this as a better option than being a burden on a family living in grinding poverty. In some cases, rebel doctrine even addresses things like universal free education. Considering the vulnerability and sheer proportions of this sector of the population, the political significance of children and youth goes far beyond the imperative for governments to be seen doing right by their children by providing health and social services. Child soldiers, who often come from the extreme end of the vulnerability spectrum, have not just fallen through the cracks; they come to participate in the economic agendas of conflict.8
For states whose economies come to adapt to and even thrive in the midst of armed conflict, youth are the natural source of manpower; a cog in a war machine that has let governments off the hook. Lucrative arms deals and non-existent accountability allows them to skim many times more off state revenue than the international community can scrape together to feed their displaced, exhausted and hungry people. Global Witness9 reveals that while Angolas defence expenditures are a burgeoning 40% of the countrys national budget, of which some US$3 billion is oil revenue, humanitarian agencies battle to contain a hunger crisis that has dragged on for years. Young people fortunate enough to attend school (in a country spending a pathetic three per cent of its budget on education) drop out if they are unable pay bribes to teachers, so deep runs the mentality of graft and corruption, although accounts of teachers, health workers and civil servants who have not been paid in months or even years are common in Angola, the DRC and Sierra Leone.
Ironically, the culture of plunder in many cases is mirrored among the individuals and groups for whom arms have become an integral tool of survival. The war economy involves not only the arms for resources transactions carried out by warring parties. It comes to permeate the very social fabric, where young people socialised with weapons in their hands quickly learn the meaning of instant gratification through the looting that comes to sustain both government and rebel forces on a day-to-day basis.
In taking the analysis beyond the simple lack of commitment and capacity in the sectors traditionally associated with children, it quickly becomes apparent that providing rights for children requires venturing into new policy areas and exploring what sustainable development for youthful populations might look like. International legal frameworks to protect children fall short of addressing why they become victims of rights violations in the first place. In a chilling way, child soldiers are labourers in the war economy, which puts them in a remarkable position, vis-à-vis international law and national action. Violent backlashes against ethnic minorities in Africa have reached horrifying proportions. In the guise of civilisation holding back barbarism, the young African majority faces a backlash on a scale that destabilises an entire continent. It has come in the form of exploitation made possible by outright economic and political exclusion, obviously preferable for some regimes to shouldering the burden of care of their youthful populations.
The notion of youth-oriented policies governing strategic resources, international trade, defence, public works and others might seem absurd to some hardened Africa analysts, but demographics tell us that there is little reason for the existence of governments in Africa other than to serve the very children and youth whom they marginalise and exploit.
% Population under 14
Life expectancy at birth
The burden of care: social, economic and political
Children continue to be treated as an issue peripheral to mainstream politics, and policy areas considered relevant to children are usually confined to health, education and social welfare. The assumption here is that families, communities and states are able and willing to provide protected social spaces for children, but armed conflict undermines their effectiveness, and that the burden of care could otherwise be carried by those legally responsible for protecting children, were the whole mechanism not incapacitated by warfare.
The burden of care in industrialised nations such as Canada, Sweden and Australia is borne for the most part, thanks to broad tax bases, functioning governments and strong human rights culture. But consider whether any of these states, regardless of their stability, their superior social services and the large proportion of economically productive people, would sustain these conditions were they coping with similar demographics. Although a rhetorical question, it serves to illustrate the issue of population distribution and how it might bear on child rights.
The burden of care extends to political space for children as well. This is another underlying rationale behind hearing the voices of children at the UN Special Session: to give children a chance to express their concerns about childrens rights in a global forum. Children are political beings almost from the day they are born, on a quest for identity, independence and a place in their society. Protecting children also means providing them with the safe social space in which to become political beings in a way that maintains familial and social order. It also means providing what might be called constructive social incentives and these in part, prevent young people from voluntarily engaging in anti-social activities, from petty crime, to joining street gangs or, in some cases, rebel groups, paramilitaries or armies at war.
The current demographics of sub-Saharan Africa might indicate that the care-taking generation is looking somewhat sparse, with the HIV/AIDS epidemic exacerbating the situation dramatically, particularly in the southern region of the continent. The scenario of child-headed households, of older siblings supporting younger ones, of the increasingly critical need to place children in alternative care situations as the parent generation in the extended family shrinks, is becoming sadly familiar.10 But beyond parents, there are teachers, health workers and social service staff, who have also become vulnerable to the epidemic. The state of social and economic care of children appears to be getting critical. The state of political care is also deteriorating.
There is a strange temptation among outsiders to look to traditional African authorities for leadership. Many Americans and Europeans question notions such as George W Bushs family values and discard them as reactionary, hypocritical and homophobic. African tradition is perhaps a romantic notion for those who have had the luxury of participating in peaceful social reform in their own societies in the protected social spaces of the family, community, university and even the organisations in which they work. Typically, young people in particular do not see the status quo as having their interests at heart. But what is a safe forum for protest for adolescent girls against genital mutilation? And what is a safe arena of negotiation for a young ex-combatant, returning to her place of origin to discover that she is excluded from land ownership and its accompanying social and political position and faces the prospect of having to marry before recognised as a member of the community?
Youthful energy constitutes nearly the whole of the human potential of Africa. Unfortunately, there are few protected political spaces in which this can be engaged constructively, and the potential of the majority has in many instances been harnessed for destructive ends. It is the job of youth to look critically at traditions, norms and customs, and the job of their caretakers to offer constructive social incentives to persuade youth that it is in their best interests to carry some of these over, to ensure that social and economic change occurs peacefully. Where communities, families and states fail to do this, children and youth can end up in violent, direct confrontation with armed opponents. Worse, they are sometimes convinced by those who steal their childhoods that it is for their own good.
In Zimbabwe, the scenario of calling teenagers war veterans and instigating violent conflict over land is one of the more blatant cases of co-opting youth in a desperate attempt to manufacture legitimacy. The ruling regimes refusal to tolerate the opposition, Mugabe as much as stated, was because they are too young and dont understand the struggle for independence that he went through.
More fortunate, politically recognised children in Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa and other former colonies are given their right to learn about armed struggle from history books in classrooms, rather than being forced to live it first hand under the prerogative of a bitter dictator to cling to power. The message was compellingly stated by a forum of non-governmental organisations working to protect childrens rights in Zimbabwe:
the climate of violence has led to disruption of childrens education due to the flight of teachers in many parts of the country, for example in Bikita, Gokwe and some parts of Mashonaland central. The long-term denial of education to children will compromise the development of their full potential, employment opportunity and the future of the country.11
Young Zimbabweans, Sierra Leoneans and others know about education and how it changes ones life, about hypocrisy and corruption and conscious of being both marginalised and used. The generations in power today have had a relatively easy time of maintaining profitable disorder precisely due to demographics and the ease with which young people can be used. The nature of oppression and control of populations must in some way reflect demographics.
For children and youth, reconciliation might involve challenging the seen and not heard mentality that pervades so many societies. Perhaps it means a reconfiguration of society wherein youth can speak and be respected in the presence of traditional and other leaders and have forums to participate in government. For thousands of children of rape or fathered during occupations, it can mean facing down a lifetime of ostracism. For nearly all, it will involve rebuilding a tenuous and perhaps undeserved trust in adults, authority and the governments for which the majority could not even vote.
Warfare is a betrayal of youth; children are owed compensation for long absences of safe spaces where they could grow and develop free from fear of adult consequences. They are owed policies and laws that protect them from exploitation, hunger and fear and that protect their natural heritage from unscrupulous global plunder. In the simplest terms, they are entitled to leadership that is accountable to youth as the majority. Although these entitlements are intuitively present in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, answering to African children means looking beyond the traditional areas of health, education and social services. It means developing a broad range of policies that take into account the burden of caring for demographically young populations, and managing their political engagement productively when true accountability cannot be enforced at the polls.
- See International Labour Organisation for statistics on child labour in Africa, <http://www.ilo.org/public/english/comp/child/stat/stats.htm>
- For the full text of the CRC, go to <http://www.un.org/special-rep/children-armed-conflict/fUnDocs.htm>
- P Chabal and J Daloz, Africa works: Disorder as a political instrument, The International African Institute, James Curry, Oxford.
- See the outcome of the UN Special Session on Children, entitled A world fit for children at <http://www.unicef.org/specialsession/documentation/index.html>
- The Report of the Secretary General on Children in Armed Conflict S/RES/1314 (19 July 2000) Section D (Training and Oversight of United Nations Peacekeeping Personnel) refers to previous report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (S/1999/957) that proposed that
all peacekeeping operations include a public ombudsman to deal with complaints from the public about the behaviour of UN peacekeepers. In that regard, it should be emphasised that troop-contributing states are under an obligation to investigate and prosecute violations of international humanitarian law committed by their personnel.
- For the press briefing from the joint UNHCR/Save the Children UK report, go to <http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/whatnew/index.html>
- For the text of the Optional Protocol, go to <http://www.un.org/special-rep/children-armed-conflict/fUnDocs.htm>
- Article 3 of the Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour uses the term the worst forms of child labour to describe
all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict
. For the full text of the convention, see <http://ilolex.ilo.ch:1567/ scripts/convde.pl?C182>
- See, All the Presidents men <http://www.globalwitness.org/indexhome.html> for information on oil and banking in Angola.
- E Guest, Children of Aids: Africas Orphan Crisis, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 2001.
- Our children, our future: A call for the protection of children against violence. Joint statement issued by the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations; Human Rights Trust of Southern Africa; Just Children Foundation; Child Protection Society; Childline-Zimbabwe; Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe; Farm Orphan Support Trust of Zimbabwe; Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children; Save the Children Alliance Zimbabwe; Zimbabwe National Association of Mental Health.