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Psychosocial problems of Child Soldiers

In war and violent conflict, children are traumatized by such common experiences as frequent shelling, bombing, helicopter strafing, round-ups, cordon-off and search operations, deaths, injury, destruction, mass arrests, detention, shootings, grenade explosions and landmines. Studies focusing on children in war situations for example in Mozambique (Richman et al, 1988)and Philippines(CRC, 1986) report considerable psychological sequelae.

In addition to the direct effects on children, war also results in collective trauma at the family and community levels. There is a breakdown of family and community processes, support structures and networks, ethical and moral values, cohesion and purpose. In this uncertain, insecure and hopeless environment, children are more likely to look for alternative opportunities, follow alluring possibilities and be compelled to make unwholesome choices. Brutalization resulting from growing up with violence, impunity and injustice with vulnerability, fear for their safety and real threats would motivate them to protect themselves (and in their imagination, their families and community) with arms and training.

Deprivation

Many families that are displaced, without incomes, jobs and food may encourage one of their children to join, so that at least they have something to eat. There is a higher incidence of malnutrition and ill health in the war torn areas. Allocation and distribution of health care facilities (staff, drugs, equipment) to some areas may be markedly disproportional. Education and schools become disorganized. There are often real or perceived inequalities in opportunities for and access to further education, sports, foreign scholarships or jobs for some groups compared to other more privileged groups. For the more conscious and concerned children, seeing or experiencing these deprivations for their family and community would push them into joining an armed resistance group.

Socio-cultural factors

Former LTTE Child Soldiers. File photo

Another potent push factor is oppressive social practices where the lower classes and castes are suppressed by the higher, who hold power and authority. For many from the lower classes, joining them becomes a way out of this oppressive system. Similarly, for younger females who experience the patriarchal oppression against their sex, it is a means of escape and 'liberation'.

Pull factors

Children because of their age, immaturity, curiosity and love for adventure are susceptible to 'Pied Piper' enticement through a variety of psychological methods. Public displays of war paraphernalia, funerals and posters of fallen cadres, speeches and videos, particularly in schools; heroic, melodious songs and stories, drawing out feelings of patriotism and creating a martyr cult create a compelling milieu. Severe restrictions on leaving areas create a feeling of entrapment as well as ensure that there is a continuing source of recruits. Military type training instill a military thinking.

In war and violent circumstances, socio-cultural and religious leaders and institutions do not protect or protest against child recruitment.

Psychological consequences

Apart from death and injury, the recruitment of children becomes even more abhorrent when one sees the psychological consequences. In those that came for treatment, we found a whole spectrum of conditions from neurotic conditions like somatization, depression, PTSD to more severe reactive psychosis and Malignant PTSD, which leaves them as complete psychological and social wrecks.

Numerous studies have shown that Child Soldiers are at high risk of developing PTSD. Okello, Onen, and Musisiv (2007) found that 27 percent - 34.9 percent of Ugandan Child Soldiers suffered PTSD. Kohrt et el. ( 2011) found that 75 of the Nepali Child Soldiers (52.3 percent) met the symptom cutoff score for depression, 65 (46.1 percent) met the score for anxiety 78 (55.3 percent) met the criteria for PTSD, 55 (39 percent) met the criteria for general psychological difficulties, and 88 (62.4 percent) were functionally impaired.

A study conducted in Sri Lanka found higher rates of PTSD in children than adults who are recruited. The emotional consequences for the majority of the children interviewed included sad moods, preoccupations, suicidal thoughts and fears. Most of them experienced loss in relation to the death of members of their family and social status as a result of their actions. This study also found that while all children in Sri Lanka grew up as a generation knowing nothing but war, and being subjected to indoctrination so they would feel hatred against their enemy, the children who were conscripted were from families living in poverty. Children from privileged families either migrated out of the area or would have been released if they were conscripted (de Silva, Hobbs and Hanks, 2001).

Political violence

Garbarino and Kostelny, (1993) suggest that experiences related to political violence and war might constitute a serious risk for the well-functioning family. Most of the Child Soldiers were separated from their parents for a long period and many have lost the sense of family belongingness.

Their family ties are wrecked. These children are separated from their cultural, social and moral identity, and it makes them vulnerable to psychological and social ill effects. Those with PTSD have intrusive memories of the war, flashbacks, emotional arousal, emotional numbing and various other anxiety related symptoms. Many avoid places and conversations related to their past experiences. Some children are reluctant to go back to their native villages may be due to shame or guilt.

Avoidance, as described by the former Child Soldiers, included actively identifying social situations, physical locations or activities that had triggered an emergence of post-traumatic stress symptoms in the past, and making efforts to avoid them in the future. One of the strongest traumatic re-experience triggers was physical location: some former Child Soldiers are now avoiding places where they witnessed or participated in violent and inhumane atrocities. War affects children in all the ways it affects adults, but also in different ways.

Combat trauma could affect children in all aspects of their lives causing long term effects that are now termed complex PTSD. Common symptoms would include affect dysregulation characterized by persistent dysphoria, chronic suicidal preoccupation, self-injury and explosive anger; dissociative episodes (which in African countries can be in the form of trance or possession states); somatization, memory disturbances, sense of helplessness and hopelessness; isolation and withdrawal, poor relationships, distrust and loss of faith.

Our observation has been that children are particularly vulnerable during their impressionable formative period, causing permanent scarring of their developing personality. Rebels have expressed their preference for younger recruits as “they are less likely to question orders from adults and are more likely to be fearless, as they do not appreciate the dangers they face. Their size and agility makes them ideal for hazardous and clandestine assignments.”

Some of the Child Soldiers have managed to escape from their country but are still living with past memories of war. A study conducted by Kanagaratnam et al (2005) focuses on ideological commitment and post-traumatic stress in a sample of former Child Soldiers from Sri Lanka living in exile in Norway. Using a sample of 20 former Child Soldiers the researchers tried to find a correlation between ideological commitment and developing mental health problems.

Usually female Child Soldiers face hardships in the war front. Female Child Soldiers in Uganda, Sierra Leone and in Congo were frequently used as sex slaves and they were repetitively raped by the adult fighters. The LTTE used female Child Soldiers to commit murders when they attacked endangered villagers. There were groups of female LTTE cadres who mainly consisted of underage girls called 'Clearance Party'. The Clearance Party advances after the assault group; their main task was to kill the wounded civilians or soldiers by using machetes. As the researcher Hamblen (1999) pointed out Gender appears to be a risk factor for PTSD; several studies suggest girls are more likely than boys to develop PTSD.

Attachment problems

When the children were forcibly removed from their parents many children experienced separation anxiety. Some developed into full blown symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder. These children repeatedly cry, attempt to run away from the captors, they have fear of being alone, and sometimes troubled by nightmares. The senior cadres use physical violence and intimidation to train the newly recruited Child Soldiers. The British Psychologist John Bowlby believed that attachment behaviors are instinctive and will be activated by any conditions that seem to threaten the achievement of proximity, such as separation, insecurity and fear.

Many ex-child combatants have apathy and poor attachment with their parents. The parents often feel that their child has changed dramatically and he is unable to express love and warmth in return. Some express that there is an invisible wall between parents and the child. The child seems to have lost the sense of trust in adults and feels that he has lost his identity as a valuable member of the society.

The child becomes oppositional, defiant, and impulsive and parents feel that the child acts as if adults don't exist in their world and does not look to adults for positive interactions. Some children had created bonds with their abductors during their stay with them and feel that they had better time with the militants than with the parents.

Moral development

Children's moral development can be disrupted by their participation in armed conflicts. Normally children learn to conform to a number of social rules and expectations as they become participants in the culture. Children and adolescents who had been displaced by civil war in Colombia reported expecting that they and others would steal and hurt people despite acknowledging that it would be morally wrong to do so, and many of them, especially adolescents, judged that taking revenge against some groups was justifiable.

Social learning theorists like Albert Bandura claim that children initially learn how to behave morally through modeling. Many Child Soldiers had learned their social behaviour through adult militants and for a number of years these senior figures were their role models. They had learned that aggression and violence were acceptable behaviours and killing the enemy was correct. They were constantly taught that kindness, compassion and forgiveness were signs of weakness.

The senior members of the rebel forces did killings and torture in front of the children for them to observe and learn. According to Bandura's postulation, individuals acquire aggressive responses using the same mechanism that they do for other complex forms of social behaviour: direct experience or the observation-modeling of others. For a number of years violence had become a way of life for these children. For years they believed that violence was a legitimate means of achieving one's aims and it was an accepted form of behaviour. They find it difficult to disengage from violent thoughts and have a transition to a non-violent lifestyle.

Participation in war and indoctrination into the ideologies of hatred and violence leaves children's moral sensibilities distorted. Children may hand over their guns, but they cannot so easily abandon the violent ways of thinking in which they have been trained. Part of demobilization is enabling the child to move away from violence and into a more inclusive and constructive way of life. The inclusion of Peace Education in curricula facilitates this process.

 

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