Child Soldiers: The Other Face of Poverty and the Lack of Access to Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Alexander Kamberov, Bulgaria, Anglo-American School of Sofia, 12th Grade, 1st Place Winner

Statement of Intent:

The composition of this political investigation was prompted by my continual exposure to the problem with the chaotic state of governance in sub-Saharan Africa and the humanitarian ramifications of this instability. As a four-time delegate to one of the largest Model United Nations conferences in the Middle East, I have always served on the African Union or Arab League committees. Thus, I have had ample opportunities for in-depth exploration of and debate regarding the solutions to such issues as the domestic crises in Somalia and Sudan, piracy off the African coast, and the rights of displaced persons. Beneath the shell of aggression which has covered most of the turmoil in the sub-Saharan region, a dire reality exists: sexual assaults, domestic violence, abductions, destitution and lack of access to alimentation, medication and education are mere formalities of life.

Naturally, the group most affected by this distress has been the children. Growing up in times of insecurity and privation, they oftentimes fail to reach adulthood, debilitated by various malignancies, emaciated by the dearth of food or riddled by the bullets of belligerent militias. It is this specific subcategory of the child labor problem, the recruitment of children for military purposes, which will be examined in the body of this paper. So far, I have centered a significant part of my research on the purely political and more generally humanitarian aspects of the African situation. Now, I would like to shed some more light specifically on the magnitude of the problem with juvenile conscription, two of its major causes – poverty and the lack of access to education – and the possible steps for the amelioration of the situation and the smoother demobilization and reintegration of children extricated from paramilitary organizations.


The 2007 Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups define “any person below 18 years of age […] recruited by an armed force […] in any capacity, including but not limited to […] fighting…” as a victim of the illegal practice of child conscription in military organizations.

Currently, some 300,000 adolescents worldwide fall into the category of children soldiers and more than 80% of them are African. Two general types of juvenile recruitment exist – voluntary and involuntary. In states like Somalia and Sudan felonious armed groups like al-Shabaab and the Janjaweed usually abduct children as young as four from schools, refugee camps, and homes; in states like Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo children often seek such conscription themselves, perceiving militias and state armies as the only reliable source of food, shelter, and security. Driven by severe poverty, deprived of any access to education or vocational training and, perhaps, seeking retribution for crimes against their families, underage soldiers often have no alternative to guarantee sustenance for themselves and their relatives, so the battlefield becomes the only option for subsistence.

Regulating the conscription of juveniles has been subject to multilateral treaties and organizations since the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Convention. The efforts were scaled up and regulations made even more stringent in the early 2000’s. Recruiting children under the age of fifteen thereafter became a criminal offense under the stipulations of the Roman Statue of the International Criminal Court, which was entrusted with enforcing the 2002 Optional Protocols on the Rights of the Child. Nevertheless, the large number of children who are currently recruited by armed organizations indicates the moderate success of such formal agreements and the need for further action to not just relieve the symptoms of the problem – the recruitment itself – but to actually deal with its crux – the excessive poverty and sometimes absolute inaccessibility of education.

Poverty has been a potent contributing factor to the most conducive conditions for juvenile enlistment – economic and social insecurity. According to the International Labor Organization, 35% of children soldiers identify either immediate survival or long-term employment as their main motivation to enroll in paramilitary organizations. The quantitative and qualitative insufficiency of programs which assist the economic integration of young people, like the lack of access to education, may significantly limit their potential to make a living independently and induce a vicious cycle of instability, predisposing children to seek conscription. Additionally, the want of money and resources frequently results in intra-communal enmity or in the lack of adequate funding for instruction, protection, and reintegration programs. Thus, destitution often makes living conditions most suitable for the military exploitation of adolescents.

Education has been neglected by the authorities of most war-torn African states and, according to the World Bank, in countries like Chad, if any instruction is at all available, in 70% of the cases the learning process receives no funds from the government and is reliant on the good will of individual communal members. In states which have not had legitimate governance for decades, like Somalia, or have been engulfed by ethnic tension and internal and external displacement, like Sudan, the situation is even worse: while elementary schooling is somewhat available in refugee and IDP camps, secondary education often is an unattainable luxury. With limited access to education, most of the growing adolescents in these nations have no chance to develop essential life skills or to receive any formal vocational training. Illiterate, with no professional walk in life and pressed by overwhelming destitution, these children represent the “perfect candidates” for serving in state armies and illicit militias.

Dealing with the underlying causes of juvenile recruitment therefore entails the amelioration of the alarming economic situation and the provision of more accessible education. Positing that African poverty is remediable within a short period of time is a simplistic and utopian statement; however, ensuring a more widely-available academic and vocational instruction, creating a greater number of basic employment opportunities, providing some limited material aid and enhancing integration programs are achievable goals, which can engender a more stable financial and social environment and, by extension, reduce the risk of juvenile conscription. Additionally, addressing both the educational and economic aspects of the problem should be done simultaneously due to the extensive interdependence between the two features – while funds are requisite for education, providing instruction which is adjusted to the market demands is an essential component of economic prosperity.

The first important step towards better access to education includes the refocusing of efforts and resources. The areas with the greatest need of better and more widely-available instruction are the refugee and IDP camps and the war-torn regions. Providing schooling closer to people’s residences reduces the risk of possible assaults presented by traveling over long distances, thus contributing to the security of local populations. Better protection makes these locations less vulnerable to militia incursions. While necessary, supplying food, water and medication should not happen beyond the necessary levels and thus possibly at the expense of academics, so effective monitoring to ensure no extreme misbalances between the provision of services and material aid is mandatory. According to the World Bank, providing access to education is not only crucial to the prevention of child recruitment, but also to the reintegration of released soldiers. While enlisted, adolescents often undergo a process of “asocialization” as they are divested from an ordinary interaction with society for extensive periods of time. The best way to demobilize such children is not a regular psychological treatment, but the so-called psychosocial approach. School, in addition to family and friends, is an excellent social context for this activity. Therefore, it is important to ensure that sufficient resources are dedicated to education because academics are an essential component for both the prevention of and reintegration following juvenile enlistment.

The second important step to reduce the problem of limited instruction includes the synchronization of education with the needs of the people and the local markets. Access to schooling is one of the most frequently requested types of assistance by children soldiers and, ironically, also the type of assistance with which they most frequently dispense. The importance of making a living, the lack of appropriate vocational training, and the inconvenient school hours are some factors that cause adolescents to opt out of education. To make schooling more accessible, it is therefore necessary to adjust the process to the priorities of the local children and the recently-extricated underage soldiers. Motivating young people to synchronize their job with evening education should be done more actively, for this option addresses both the short-term and long-term necessities of impacted adolescents: to make a living and eventually, through learning, to become more employable. Government policy and the efforts of the United Nations Children’s Fund should therefore be focused on instituting accelerated learning programs which function well with the routine of the local communities. Also, vocational reintegration should be directly linked to the demands of the market. Opportunity mapping and the needs of the local economy must be taken into account in order to ensure labor diversification and to avoid steering too many people into the same vocational direction, which leads to superfluous competition, subsequent frustration and, at worst, military recruitment. Consequently, adjusting the provision of education to the demands of the people and the market is pivotal to making instruction both an accessible and economically-beneficial alternative to enlistment.

The third important line of action against juvenile conscription should focus on the local economic conditions, which incite adolescents to seek or, at the very least, not resist military recruitment. A major shortcoming of the vocational training is that African children often are so indigent that even after undergoing appropriate schooling they do not have enough resources to utilize their newly-acquired skills. Furthermore, where welfare programs exist to dissuade the youth from enlisting or re-enlisting, these initiatives often fail to reach out to a large faction of their target group. To cope with the frustration which economic hardship presents, international non-governmental organizations and the governments of affected states, where legitimate and functioning, could follow the example of Sierra Leone. After the 1991-2002 civil war, the authorities coerced all underage soldiers to undergo vocational training and provided basic start-up kits and state funds to help affected adolescents overcome the economic stress which they would experience just upon the completion of schooling. In reality, however, this measure need not be applied ex post facto, like in Sierra Leone, for it could become precautionary and preclude children from enlisting in the first place. The outreaching problem is more difficult to tackle because of the obstructed access to the sub-Saharan war-torn regions. In order for the economic and reintegration support to extend to such places, a variety of measures could be implemented. Education facilities, aid supplies and the state military, where not involved in recruiting itself, could be used to disseminate information about any material aid the government and NGO’s have to offer.

Finally, it should be noted that, although the lack of access to education and poverty are at the root of child recruitment, the aforementioned solutions will only alleviate the situation for a limited period of time. The major cause of the African problems, including poverty and limited education, remains the continuous warfare, which ushered the continent into an era of economic and social instability. Riddled with ineffective governance and insecurity, African countries often fail to identify and address the needs of the youth and the state economy. Thus, the lack of financial provisions for education and the shaky state of economy, alongside the ongoing conflicts, make it most opportune for burgeoning militias to trick adolescents into joining their forces in exchange for food, shelter, security and employment – essentially, what the authorities fail to offer. Therefore, the full eradication of the problem will only be achieved with the establishment of legitimate governments with a sincere focus on policies that ensure economic prosperity and social stability. Until this phase, however, the reallocation of efforts and resources, the adjustment of schooling to local socio-economic demands, and the successful implementation of welfare programs will help curb the problem with juvenile conscription by facilitating the access to education and reducing financial instability.


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