According to UNICEF, thousands of boys and girls are used as soldiers, spies and more in armed conflicts around the world. Between 2005 and 2020, more than 93,000 children were known to have been recruited - although the actual number is believed to be much higher.
UNICEF says that children become part of an armed force or group for various reasons - some are abducted, threatened, coerced or manipulated. “Others are driven by poverty, compelled to generate income for their families. Still others associate themselves for survival or to protect their communities. No matter their involvement, the recruitment and use of children by armed forces is a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law…
“Children experience unconscionable forms of violence. They may be required to participate in harrowing training or initiation ceremonies, to undergo hazardous labour or to engage in combat – with great risk of death, chronic injury and disability. They may also witness, suffer or be forced to take part in torture and killings. Girls, especially, can be subjected to gender-based violence.”
That’s the big picture. Drill down to one country, South Sudan, and there are 19,000 children still involved in armed groups, according to a World Vision South Sudan report.
19,000 individuals – 19,000 children ensnared in armed groups.
Grace (not her real name) was one such child. Thankfully, she isn’t any more.
Life changed in an instant
She was 17 when, just after midnight on a June evening in 2015, her life changed in an instant.
She remembers, “A group of about 15 armed men stormed our compound, banged on the doors and demanded that my stepfather open up or they will shoot everyone.”
That was the start of the nightmare.
Things got worse. “In less than a few minutes, we were outside and on the ground. I was the eldest among the children. The men sprayed bullets in the air and [told] my stepfather and me to move, threatening to kill anyone who tried to escape or resist.”
Grace said they walked for almost four hours with no idea where they were going. She adds, “Our lives were obviously in God’s mercy. Being led by drunk and armed people was a horrifying experience. Fortunately, some people, including my stepfather, managed to escape.