Today, the world is struggling to resolve an increasing number of civil wars and the changing nature of armed violence. The Dalai Lama has also called it the ‘century of violence’ . Small Arms Survey estimates that more than 5, 26, 000 children, women and men die every year due to armed violence. Boundaries between war field and civil area have become blurred and civilians are engaged in fighting with militias or government armed forces in many countries.
Children have always been the most vulnerable group along with women in times of conflict. Interestingly, the role of children in armed conflict has also changed significantly because of technological advancement in the field of arms and ammunitions.
Often children become the target of the violence though everydescription knows that it’s not their fault. They are part of ‘collateral damage’. According to UN data, children below 18 years constitute 25% of the combatants fighting civil war in more than 30 countries. United Nations estimates that today around 250,000-300,000 children are engaged in armed conflict. Two decades back less number of children were engaged in armed conflict in supporting roles like: as a porter, informer or cook with warring groups. In the last twenty years, the role of children has changed considerably and they have been pushed to the frontlines as fighters.
The availability of new sets of arms especially AK series riffles (AK-47,56,74) which are light weight and can be managed by a child of 10-12 years have made children front line fighters in armed conflicts. Considering the economics of war, recruiting children is more cost effective as they eat less, easy to manage and could be more courageous and committed if recruited at a young age. Recruitment of children has become part of the armed conflicts across the globe as the evidences are there from Sri Lanka, Nepal to South Sudan.
Most often recruitment of children is forced in armed forces, against their own wish. In many countries they were mobilized to protect the pride of their own community while fighting with other groups. The compulsion of taking a side also
makes children vulnerable as in a conflict situation; they cannot be a mere spectator. They get only two options- either leave the village/community or join the group. The classic examples of this in recent years are Nepal and Sri Lanka where children were part of armed groups. In Nepal during the ‘People’s War’, in the area of Maoist influence ,every household was asked to send at least one person to fight the war against the monarchy and many children were forced to join the People’s Liberation Army. Some children see joining armed groups as a livelihood opportunity while others join to avenge the injustice meted out by ‘enemies’ such as state forces or the exploitative groups.
UNICEF estimates that since 1990, more than 2 million children have been killed because of light weight and sophisticated weapons; more than 6 million are wounded and more than 26 million children have left their home .
The power dynamics in the community also change when there are armed groups. In contrast to traditional societies where older people were the decision makers on social and political issues, now the young children associated with armed groups influence the decisions.
The increased number of small arms is a matter of serious concern as there are more than 875 million small arms in circulation across the world. As the discussion on Millennium Development Goals for post 2015 is on progress, armed conflict should also be considered as one of the lenses to set the new MDGs. The UN Secretary-General and the UN General Assembly both, have recognized the destructive effects of armed violence on the developmental agenda.
Armed conflict not only violates children’s rights but also reduces the pace of development .Developing countries spend 10-15% of their GDP and developed countries spend 5% of their GDP on law enforcement. The new development agenda should also review these aspects because 42% of the total out-of-school children are in countries affected by armed conflict. Armed conflict hampers the developmental agenda, mauls the social fabrics and creates obstacles in human capital development. All countries must share responsibility to reduce the incidents of violence and prevalence of children’s participation in armed conflicts.