According to the United Nations, more than a dozen countries around the world continue to recruit, enlist and exploit children in armed conflict -- with devastating results. Psychologically traumatized by atrocities they’ve participated in and witnessed, these innocent child soldiers are deprived of their human rights, stripped of their childhood wonder, and robbed of their potential to develop into well-adjusted adults. Worldwide, as many as 250,000 of these girls and boys currently suffer the indignities and abuse of forced military service -- a cruel practice our Salesian missionaries are determined to stop.
Recruited from situations of adversity -- poverty, domestic abuse, abandonment, neglect or death of a parent, for example -- child soldiers are easy to manipulate. Commanders foster their dependence by providing food, water, shelter and daily structure -- and ensure absolute compliance by threatening the children’s safety. In some extremely cruel cases, military officers even force children to kill a member of their own family -- which guarantees that they can never return home. This is yet another devastating reality that too many young people face as a result of war.
“It’s a truly heartbreaking situation,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “These children belong in school and on the playground, not on the battlefield. And those who survive their ordeal -- the ones who escape, are rescued or are released -- lack the basic skills they need to function in the real world.”
Isolated from a supportive community and emotionally scarred from their experiences, many former child soldiers return to the ranks of war. “They’re vulnerable to re-recruitment and the false promise of security,” explains Fr. Mark. “Children who re-enlist are usually uneducated, which seriously limits their opportunities and potential. It’s a vicious cycle that threatens the possibility of lasting peace.”
This is why Salesian missionaries are absolutely committed to rescuing, rehabilitating and educating these victims whenever and wherever they can. In Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and several other countries afflicted by this atrocity, missionaries help girls and boys reclaim their youth and potential through counseling, basic schooling, job training and social reintegration programs. Three core principles guide this work:
Child soldiers are victims, never to be blamed for their situation. “Even in cases where a child joins an armed group ‘voluntarily,’ this decision is usually driven by poverty and its associated consequences,” explains Fr. Mark. “It’s essential that we work to restore their rights as citizens, with multidisciplinary teams of professionals.”
Education is key to successful reintegration. Whenever possible, Salesian missionaries, teachers and program staff take a holistic view, and seek to adapt their educational approach to the individual needs and circumstances of each former child soldier.
Prevention is the only lasting solution. The costs of prevention programs pale in comparison to the individual and societal consequences of using children as soldiers. And, while rehabilitation programs are necessary and ongoing, they are expensive. Educating at-risk children and communities about the recruitment and exploitation of children in armed conflict is a crucial first step toward permanently eliminating the practice.
To this last point, missionaries are now adopting novel approaches to raise awareness. At Ciudad Don Bosco in Medellin, Colombia, for example, they use comic books to highlight “danger zones” -- specific locations, activities and times of day when youth are especially vulnerable to recruitment, such as searching for firewood alone in the forest. These books are particularly effective because they are based, in large part, on the real stories of former child soldiers who were rehabilitated through the program. Developed in partnership with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and a local illustrator, these books are also used as teaching tools in Salesian-run programs throughout Colombia.
On a larger scale, missionaries are promoting the documentary Alto el Fuego (“Cease Fire”), which highlights the experiences of several former child soldiers, and the work of Salesian missionaries to help rescue them. As a result, Ciudad Don Bosco earned the 2017 Human Rights award, presented annually by Spain’s General Council of the Association of Lawyers. Seventy-four entrants from around the world competed for this honor.
“We must implement all available approaches to prevent the recruitment of minors,” says Fr. Mark. “Certainly, there is no fast or simple solution, but we are well prepared for the challenge.”
Our mission works to address the root causes of forced combat -- so that every girl, and every boy, can live free from the horrors of armed conflict. What’s your mission?