By Elizabeth Gardner, NCL public policy intern
I’ve been going through a mental checklist of some of the 12-year-olds that I’ve known. The list includes some extremely rambunctious boys and some spirited girls—my little sister’s friends, an old coach’s son, a family friend, girls that I coached at volleyball camp. It’s these kids that I’ve been thinking back to as I’ve read the recent press that’s come out regarding child soldiers in Somalia.
The reports are disheartening. Although the United Nations believes the use of child soldiers around the world is on the decline, an estimated 250,000 children continue to be enslaved as soldiers—in Burma, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and other countries. They’re not always forced into the fighting by rebel groups either, for in Somalia these kids are on the government’s payroll. Children as young as nine years old serve in the Somali military. Twelve-year olds man checkpoints and wave Kalashnikov assault rifles. Somalia is one of “the most persistent violators of children in armed conflicts,” according to the UN. And what’s worse is that the United States is funding Somalia’s military—sending arms and funds.
This wave of recent media attention has initiated some positive steps. Although the Somalian government has avowed that all their soldiers are at least 20 years old, it has promised an investigation of the matter. That may mean very little, but the chances that this issue will be addressed are seemingly a lot higher now that the public spotlight is shining glaringly down on the situation. The UN is looking to implement measures against the use of child soldiers. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) is raising concerns. American officials are being forced to answer some tough questions about where U.S. funding is going. And the State Department just published its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which highlights the concern of child soldiers in Somalia. Recent stories, covering the challenges facing former child soldiers as they try to reintegrate into their communities, further highlight the need to keep pressing this issue.
With Maoists in Nepal and rebels in the Philippines, the UN has found that publicly calling out groups that violate children’s rights—or “naming and shaming”—is an effective method for bringing about reform. Knowing that this method has worked and can work is encouraging. As I think back to the kids in my life, I’m reminded of why it is so important that we push this issue. No 6th grader or junior high student should be handed a gun and forced onto the front lines. This is just simply something that we cannot afford to let fall off the radar.