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Child soldiers: You can do something

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We all know we're supposed to care about Africa. Many of us care without even being reminded. But there is a difference between caring and doing something about it.

This news organization, to its credit, decided to devote space to the connections between the continent of Africa and this city and province. And invariably, some of these accounts focus on those who care enough to do something.

These inspiring stories should leave many readers asking themselves, what can we do? How can we get involved?

But perhaps the broader question is what can we Canadians do in a place like Africa? At a time of fiscal restraint and looming cuts, it is worth being reminded how important it is for Canadians to continue to look outward, to see the rest of the world and realize just how much we are all linked together, how much our fates are interwoven.

In another era, the Canadian government took the unprecedented step of joining forces with civil society organizations in a campaign to ban landmines. And it worked.

A little more than a decade ago, right here in Winnipeg, the foreign affairs minister of the day, Lloyd Axworthy, decided to throw the government's weight behind an effort to draw more attention to the plight of child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere. And once again, Canada had an impact, in that instance, helping to push for the release of child soldiers abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda.

In my case, the Winnipeg event helped me to realize the contribution I could make on the issue of child soldiers as a retired general who also has a foot in the activist, humanitarian camp.

Since then, I have devoted a lot of my time trying to eradicate the use of child soldiers as a weapons system. This is an issue of paramount importance to Africa and to Canada.

At any given time there are a quarter of a million child soldiers globally experiencing a suffering that most of you cannot even imagine. These children are routinely abducted violently from their families at a tender age and are subjected to forcible confinement, torture, threats, rape, brainwashing, slavery, starvation, intoxication through drugs and sleep deprivation. They are forced to carry heavy loads, including human bodies, not just weaponry. They are often paired up and killed if their partner escapes. People are often surprised to hear that 40 per cent of child soldiers are girls, often forced to be sex slaves as well as soldiers, cooks and nurses and must deal with pregnancy under these conditions too often. The use of child soldiers is horrifically true and is taking place now. The status quo is completely unacceptable and international proposed solutions are in danger of failing.

 

Many groups work to help former child soldiers, but I discovered that very little was being done to figure out why military leaders decide to use children as soldiers and how they could be convinced to stop using kids as a weapons system.

My goal is to identify ways to render it ineffective to use child soldiers and to eradicate their use, just as we did with land mines. To that end I founded a project called the Child Soldiers Initiative (childsoldiersinitiative.org), based at Dalhousie University. Right now, the Child Soldiers Initiative is in the field working to change the behaviour and attitudes of security forces when facing child soldiers. Our approach is to take a preventative role, rather than reacting after the fact.

Some might argue that the child soldier issue can never be eradicated as long as there are wars. But humanity has created other evil things which we have had the morality and good sense to abolish such as slavery, apartheid and chemical and biological weapons.

Beyond the obvious, why should you care? Why does this issue matter to Canadians?

Well, some of these children are now living among us, as refugees, and we should better understand them and their needs. It is important for service providers and educators to know about the issue so they know how to interact with young people who come from conflict-affected countries.

And don't forget that Canadian soldiers often find themselves in countries where child soldiers are used and face them in the field. The shock of staring down a child soldier can have adverse effects on these Canadian military personnel. Many of these soldiers return with post-traumatic stress disorder which, in the short term, has an effect on them and their families. The long-term impacts remain unknown.

Canada was once at the forefront of the development and adoption of conventions and treaties on the child soldier issue, and now we are nowhere to be found. Something needs to change. After all, a child is a child is a child. I appeal to you to engage with me in efforts to stop the recruitment of children to be weapons in adult wars.

Yes, we all know we're supposed to care about an issue like the use of child soldiers. But there is a difference between caring and doing something about it.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 A10

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