- Impact on Society
- Impact on Future
Coupled with the rapid social change which often precedes or accompanies war, armed conflict leads to a breakdown in the family support systems so essential to a child's survival and development. Other forms of protection also slip away, particularly government and community support systems.
Child soldiers suffer many impacts from their recruitment into armies and from being forced to fight. However, the children are not the only ones who suffer. While this site is devoted to raising awareness about the use of child soldiers, one must not forget the societal impacts that child soldiers have. Yes, the impacts on the children come first and foremost, but one may not grasp the complete scope of the problem until one has viewed all of the aspects.
Child soldiers are used for many different reasons. One of these is a shortage of a standing army and battle-ready adults. As a result, the children are untrained and completely unprepared for the war they are suddenly immersed in. This inexperience leads to numerous injuries ranging from scars and lacerations to loss of limbs from explosions. These children who receive such wounds must bear reminders of their lives in the army on their bodies forever.
Disease and malnutrition kills more child soldiers than actual bullets.
Surprisingly, it is malnutrition and disease that takes far more children than any bullets or bombs. In Ishmael Beah’s tale of his childhood experience in Uganda fleeing the rebel army and suffering eventual impressment into a government army, he chronicles how the armed combatants merely took anything they wanted from villages, whether it be food, supplies, or the very children that lived there. Beah writes of ongoing food shortages throughout the country, where he and his companions nearly starved to death. In many cases around the world in child soldiering nations, children do starve to death. Disease is another large factor in the deaths of children in countries of conflict. During the climax of Somalia’s civil war, measles claimed the lives of over half the children in many areas. Many children in war-pocked nations die from diseases that we as Americans view as harmless, such as Diarrhea. According to the World Health Organization, 50% of the world’s refugees are infected with Tuberculosis. Other diseases such as cholera, malaria, and several acute respiratory infections are the causes of deaths in many children, both soldiers and refugees. Sadly, many younger boys and nearly all girls captured by armies who participate in child impressment are subject to rape, sexual harassment, and prostitution. This leads to the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, including HIV, AIDS, and others. In addition, blood transfusion services with limited technology for blood testing only help to spread these diseases.
In Real Numbers
In the past 20 years, it is estimated that 2 million children have died as a direct result of war between factions, and well over 6 million have been permanently disabled or direly injured. And this is only the physical impact.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the most common psychological impact on a child soldier.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Probably the most prominent mental impact on child soldiers is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat." In Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, he confirms this impact by his recount of terrible nightmares and an inability to sleep. Those whom PTSD has affected may experience flashbacks to their traumatic moment(s) in addition to nightmares and sleep loss, among others. Beah chronicles his own PTSD bouts, saying, "I had a dream that . . . a gunman stood on top of me. He placed his gun on my forehead. I immediately woke up . . . and began shooting inside the tent, until the thirty rounds in the magazine were finished . . . I was sweating, and they . . . gave me a few more of the white capsules."
Adjustment disorder occurs in many child soldiers as a result of the sudden change from civilian life to that of a soldier. The process by which the child is removed from the army only serves to compound the problem, as the child must undergo yet another rapid lifestyle change. In the first phase, the children lose their identities to the war, and more importantly, they lose their childhood. A child's innocence is one of the most precious and fragile things in the world, and while most children around the world go through a gradual process, child soldiers have not only their innocence, but their entire childhood stolen away from them. One day, a boy is splashing in the river, and three days later, he is killing men with a machine gun. However, this is not where the disorder becomes a problem. In the second phase, the child is forced to reintegrate with society, to regain his or her identity and to become as much like a child again as is possible. This is something that occurs none too easily. Those child soldiers who are able and willing to return to school find themselves far behind in their studies, not to mention a sense of apathy following the horrors they were forced to endure. No matter what the situation, adjustment disorder will continue to plague a child soldier for a long time after they have appeared to adjust to a new environment on the surface.
Personality disorder occurs as a result of exposure to violence, impressed ideologies, and forced acceptance of a perverse code of morals. Child soldiers may lose the ability to empathize, chronically partake in violent, aggressive, or manipulative actions, and just act in an unnatural manner. Ishmael Beah discusses his experiences with personality disorder, saying, "My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed."
As soldiers in many armies in impoverished nations, the children, along with their older soldier companions are not fed nearly enough food. The children must adapt to a constant starving state in which they must train their body to sublimate its desires for food. In a survey of 301 former child soldiers, 27% said that they were forced to drink their own urine. The survey does not say if the children were merely forced or did so out of desperation. Either explanation only serves to further elucidate the horrors that child soldiers endure. When the starved child soldiers are reintegrated with society and are able to eat as much as they want, many suffer from one of two eating disorders. Some have been so affected by the forced starvation that they refuse to eat any more than a bare minimum required to stay alive. Others are so ecstatic at the ability to eat freely that they eat far too much.
Depression is a fourth mental disorder that former child soldiers suffer from. The children who become depressed feel as if there is not life left for them to live, and come to regret their actions as soldiers, feeling ashamed. In a sense, depression is a good sign, since the children have come to see the error in their ways, although this introspection is also a consequence in itself. However, even if a child soldier overcomes any kind of mental disorder, that child will never be able to escape from his memories.
Impact on Society
Child soldiers and the act of forcing children to serve in the armed forces have an enormous impact on society. In countries known for heavy child soldier use, the civilians and people who wish to simply live their lives in peace have a new threat, in the form of children. For the sake of their well-being, these people must be wary not only of adult soldiers, but also children. As Ishmael Beah shows in his novel, children are no longer safe in these countries. Beah speaks of a time before he and his friends were soldiers, where "fishermen sprang from behind huts with machetes, fishing spears, and nets in their hands. . . . The fishermen jabbed us with the flat edges of heir weapons until we fell on the ground. They sat on top of us, tied our hands, and took us to their chief." Additionally, children are the future of the world. The indenture of children, which almost definitely leads to the deaths of children, is the destruction of the very future of the world. Those children who survive to lead the countries or the factions in the countries have grown up knowing only violence and war, and will only repeat the never-ending cycle.
Impact on Future
As seen in Ishmael Beah’s story A Long Way Gone, the future for child soldiers freshly removed from the hostile environment is very bleak. Beah details how violent his life was even months after his removal from the army. He reported that many of the friends he had made during his tenure as a child soldier eventually fled society and returned to the fight. Speaking of his experiences during an attempted reformation of former child soldiers, Ishmael Beah says, "After I left the center, Mambu went back to the front lines." The children are utterly and, in most cases, irrevocably altered by their child soldier experience. When a child soldier does manage to overcome his past, he experiences vast difficulties when attempting to merge back into society. Most child soldiers completely lose their families, either having seen them killed, or having wandered great distances from a raided home village, or just without any clue as to what has happened. A child without a family is like an ant without a queen, like a soldier without a commander. Even when a former child soldier finds his family, there are cases where the family will not take the child back in, for fear of the child’s past deeds or the spirits of those the child has killed. Other children are afraid of former child soldiers, and this increases the difficulties that the children face when attempting to reincorporate themselves into society.