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"Forced to Sin": Why we need to bring attention to child soldiers

Photo: Sebastian Rich/Al Jazeera

Chances are you’ve never heard of Emmanuel Jal before so allow me the privilege of introducing you. (And trust me, it really is my privilege.)

Flicker: The Global Fund for Children

I first heard of Emmanuel Jal through his music and was immediately enamored with him. His song “War Child” captured me in a way that only great music can. The infectious beats and powerful lyrics had me playing the song on repeat, and all the while, I was absorbing Jal’s compelling narrative.

Youtube: Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal is a man who wears many hats. He is a Sudanese rapper, activist, former child soldier, and a story teller. Much of his music is autobiographical, and tells his story of being born in southern Sudan in the midsts of it’s long civil war. Jal spent his early years in a conflict zone, and at the tender age of seven was recruited as a child soldier for the Rebel Army (SPLA). As he says “I believe I’ve survived for a reason. To tell my story, to touch lives,” and through his influential music he certainly does.

Take for example his lyrics from “Forced to Sin” where he describes his ordeal as a child soldier. You can listen to it here starting at 4:01 (and I’d highly recommend you do), but I have also selected some lyrics below.

Youtube: TED

Left home at the age of seven.
One year later, live with an AK-47 by my side.
Slept with one eye open wide.
Run, duck, play dead and hide.
I've seen my people die like flies.
...
As a child so young and tender,
Words I can't forget I still remember.
As the sergeant commander raising his hand,
no retreat, no surrender.
I carry the banner of the trauma.
War child, child without a mamma,
still fighting in the saga.

No matter how many times I hear these lyrics, I always feel a deep emotional pull.

I actually got to see Jal perform this song at a United Nations concert, and it blew me away! In this song, he talks about the impossible choices he had to make and acts he committed as a child soldier. In order to survive he was:

Forced to sin to make a living.
Sometimes you gotta lose to win.
Never give up. Never give in.

By using his own narrative, Jal is able to lend a voice to the plight of child soldiers worldwide.

The current situation for child soldiers globally:

Today, it is estimated by UNICEF that some 300,000 children – boys and girls under the age of 18 – are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. Children are used as front-line troops, porters and cooks, and for forced sexual services. They are seen as efficient alternatives to adult combatants, and are often viewed as easy to indoctrinate. Children are particularly vulnerable of being recruited if they are separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in combat zones or have limited access to education.

Map from the United Nations

This map from the United Nations gives you a visual idea of where these grave violations against children are committed. I will highlight three of them here.

1. South Sudan

South Sudan has a long history of conflict and unfortunately the use of child soldiers has been prevalent throughout. Although the region has known brief periods of peace, fighting erupted again in December 2013, when disputes broke out between government troops and opposition forces. It is estimated that more than 12,000 children are being used by both sides of the conflict, and just this weekend at least 89 more boys were forcibly abducted from their homes.

2. Nigeria

Ten months ago, 276 school girls were abducted from a village in Northern Nigeria by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. This action sparked the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls and brought attention to the situation within the country. Janine Morna, research officer for Watchlist, said “since 2009, the level of violence and scale of violations against children in northeastern Nigeria have worsened. The conflict has displaced 650,000 people, primarily women and children - and affected millions of others.” Watchlist has also seen the recruitment of children by both Boko Haram and self-defense militias, where children have been used for tasks ranging from spying, to cooking, to fighting.

3. Syria

Since the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, the situation has allowed the radical group ISIS to form and establish a presence in the conflict torn country. Consequently, they now control considerable territory in eastern Syria and western and central Iraq. ISIS (or as they now often say the Islamic State) is known to recruit children and train them as soldiers, suicide bombers, and enforcers. They recently released a video showing a training camp in Syria for “cubs of the caliphate.” In the video, 80 boys, some thought to be as young as five, stand in formation in a courtyard as they chant and perform military drills. Priyanka Motaparthy, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said “the horrors of Syria’s armed conflict are only made worse by throwing children into the front lines,” and unfortunately ISIS continues to actively recruit children.

I think we can generalize this last statement and say ALL armed conflicts are made worse when children are thrown into the front lines or when they are placed in dangerous situations and their innocence is jeopardized.

What can we do?

We have a responsibility as global citizens to address the issue of child soldiers head on and combat violence globally. In order to do this we need to make sure every child has access to education. A lack of access to education leaves children vulnerable to recruitment, and UNESCO and the Global Partnership for Education estimate that 50% of all children currently not in school live in conflict zones.

We also need to see major reforms, stronger governance, and more accountability against those who recruit children into war. We must remember the children who are “Forced to Sin” are innocent, but the leadership which preys upon them is not. These leaders should be held accountable for their actions, and stronger punishments would send a clear message that this practice will not be tolerated.

And finally, we must make sure that global leaders know this is an issue we are concerned about and we need them to address. Let’s petition World Leaders to take substantive action to ensure every child has access to education and show our support from children in conflict zones.

A world without child soldiers would be a good step towards peace, and so I’m stealing a line from Emmanuel Jal, and saying: “I’m calling out to the whole wide world. Help me scream and shout that we want peace.” 

Youtube: Emmanuel Jal