Saving child soldiers: Therapy, education and community are the keys
Medical attention, therapy and education are key in rehabilitating former child soldiers.
Think about how a child becomes a soldier:
Some are taken from their homes because of their strength, some join out of ideology, vengeance and anger, and some are exchanged by their village for protection. Some children may choose to join a military group because they are persuaded to think it will lead to a better life.
Today, the International Rescue Committee estimates that there are 300,000 children currently trained for combat or used as porters, spies or sex slaves for war around the world. These child soldiers, both girls and boys, do not gain a better life by joining an armed militia--although they may escape death by doing so. Instead, they become victims, desensitized to violence, capable of perpetrating violence long after a conflict has ended.
Against such odds, can rehabilitation and reintegration be used to help children have meaningful and productive postwar lives?
Medical treatment is instrumental in getting former child soldiers rehabilitated and reintegrated. The WHO states that along with war-related injuries: land mines, stabbing and gun shot wounds, children will also have common viruses and diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, yellow fever, etc. In the case of girls, who are casualties of intense sexual abuse and violence: systematic rape and mutilation, immediate medical care is critical as their wounds are internal.
Child soldiers needing to reintegrate into a community face double discrimination, as their actions and their current physical state might be considered taboo. UNICEF transitory care centers, like ones set up throughout the DRC, take this into consideration.
These transitory care centers care for the child for three months, focusing on nursing the child back to health and providing immediate psychological therapy. Children are placed in ‘families of 30’ where they live with other survivors and are given care by staff counselors. Children come from an amalgam of different backgrounds-various ethnic and armed groups- to aid in showing them that grief; depression and anger are common side effects in their post-war recovery period.
But once the three months are over, how can children assume normal lives with the families they have left?
Therapy to Rehabilitate:
A child soldier’s life after medical and humanitarian care is something that Dr. Theresa Betancourt of Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health has been researching and promoting awareness of since 2007. Betancourt's groundbreaking research and work on this topic has shown that breaking the cycle of violence is possible, but difficult. The multi-part approach she devised comes from researching trauma in child soldiers following Sierra Leone’s 11 year civil war.
According to Betancourt’s research and findings, a former child soldier can lead a normalized life. The first step is the child’s family accepting them back, triggering the child’s community to do the same.
The second step is establishing support groups for the child in their community. These groups don’t need to be composed of only former child soldiers. Building children’s confidence, identity and self worth are the focuses in this group.
These therapy sessions offer safe spaces for children. Here, they can learn how to discuss their trauma, and “their symptoms start to lift”. In fact, Betancourt states, this trauma can be transformed to show the children that they can,” navigate a harsh and dangerous environment…and a sense that they can control their fate”.
Art is a great medium to use when a child cannot articulate the trauma they have experienced. It is one form of therapy employed in rehabilitating child soldiers.
A keystone in Betancourt’s research emphasizes the importance of children returning to school. Here, children will have the opportunity to secure a better life through consistent peer-to-peer interaction, and skills and livelihood building. In school, children become motivated and confident.
Education to Reintegrate:
Many child soldiers never had the opportunity to attend school because they were either recruited at a young age, or forced to work due to poverty. A child will gain socio-emotional skills in a classroom setting. Through sustained interaction with peers, and a normalized schedule, children will begin building a new identity disassociated with conflict. Education, coupled with vocational training also helps. When a child is taught an employed skill, like carpentry, they can break out of the cycle of poverty.
In addition to education bulding chldren's self esteem and identity, a child's return to school signals normalcy and peace throughout the community.
However, the educational environment can still be difficult due to embedded cycles of poverty that are often present.
Sustained action is key to the inner peace and recovery of child soldiers. But, this type of aid requires consistency and time from all helping hands. Dr. Betancourt emphasizes that these children can never be forgotten.
Talking about international aid players she says that, “We need to devise lasting systems of care, instead of leaving behind a dust cloud that disappears when the humanitarian actorsleave." Sustained commitment to these children that can override the accumulated trauma will result in positive outcomes. Incomplete work can result in children enduring increased psychological harm, and continuing the cycle of poverty and violence. Making it more like the Children would rejoin armed groups.
Education is one of the main forms of rehabilitation, and reintegration of child soldiers. Here, education is a life-saving and life-prolonging activity. We, as global citizens, can help in making education in emergencies a reality for children who might otherwise be recruited or drawn into becoming a child soldier.