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Children Without a Childhood

We Have a Moral Duty to End Child Soldiering

There is absolutely nothing worse in this world than war. That is nothing except when grown adults force children to fight the wars they don’t have the courage to fight themselves, which according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2022 Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) list includes 12 countries: Afghanistan, Burma, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Mali, Russia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

However, this list does not give the full picture of the extent to which child soldiers are actually being used worldwide. There are, undoubtedly, numerous other countries that use child soldiers in conflicts but are able to skirt around the official criteria in one way or another.

For example, the government of Saudi Arabia, led by Mohammad bin Salmon, has found they can pay Sudanese families, who, after experiencing unimaginable atrocities during the brutal civil war in Darfur, now live in near-total poverty in sprawling Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) camps surrounding Khartoum, to send their young boys to go and take up arms and fight in Yemen, the battleground for their ongoing proxy war with Iran. And so, because the children they use do not come from Saudi Arabia but instead are Sudanese, they are not on the CSPA list.

That a list entitled the Child Soldiers Prevention Act even exists at all is an absolute failure beyond belief. That on any given night, there are nearly 300,000 children who go to sleep clutching a gun instead of a teddy bear is a testament to our utter disregard for humanity. And the fact that our U.S. Government continues to turn a blind eye and allow countries to carry on using children as soldiers through the use of “national interest waivers” should disgust every American.

Unfortunately, it is all too simple for us to pretend these atrocities don’t exist; to convince ourselves that there is nothing more we can do; to acquiesce to this absolute disregard for humanity. But the truth, as uncomfortable is it may be, is that these children are no different and of no less worth than our own. Yet our reluctance as a nation to confront this problem with an absolute and unwavering resolve can only be interpreted as a sign that we don’t care that they are kidnapped and forced to become suicide bombers, human shields, and sex slaves; that when they close their eyes to try and go to sleep at night, they are unable to escape the horrors that reside inside their tortured little minds; that when they have a nightmare, they don’t have a mommy or daddy who can comfort them back to sleep.

We as a nation must do more, and we must do so now.

Firstly, our government leaders must not allow any country whatsoever to use children as soldiers. There can be no more “national interest waivers” signed at all. The excuse that we must do so for our national security is shortsighted at best. Our long-term national security is undoubtedly weakened when we are spineless and refuse to hold countries accountable for atrocities such as this. We are rightly viewed as being hypocritical for saying one thing but doing another. We are seen as being weak and as a country that can be easily manipulated. This is not in our national interest. What is in our national interest is for countries to know that when we say we will do something, we follow through and do it. Not part way, not even most of the way, but all the way.

Secondly, we must provide alternatives to families who feel so pressured due to their extreme poverty and lack of hope for a better future that they see no other option than to sell their children into slavery and soldiering in the first place. These alternatives must be in the form of real, tangible economic aid. The International NGO and humanitarian community must focus on job skills training, micro-enterprise development, and educational initiatives that equip people to empower themselves. All too often, the programs and services delivered by International NGOs and humanitarian agencies, while well-intentioned, are of very little benefit to the recipients because the programs fail to address the root causes of poverty and despair, which must change.

And thirdly, each and every single one of us must ask ourselves what role we can play in this mission to ensure that all children, everywhere, are able to experience their human right to a childhood devoid of violence and exploitation. For some, that means advocating for the end of child soldiering; for others, it means generously giving financial resources to help combat child soldiering, and for those in positions of power, it means using that influence for the good of others. Numerous options exist, but doing nothing at all is irrefutably not one of them.

About the Author

J.D. Pitts is Founder & Principal Advisor for Ahlan International, a firm specializing in equipping clients to successfully operate in Arab and Islamic contexts worldwide. Before founding Ahlan International, Mr. Pitts lived for 15 years in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, and Mauritania. While there, his professional experience included both the education and business sectors and over a decade of deep involvement in humanitarian work ranging from small, grassroots operations to large-scale, UN-managed operations.

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute.