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Reintegration a Major Issue for Former Child Soldiers

Mike Wessells, Psychologist and Sr. Child Protection Advisor for CCF, and Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, shared a webchat on, the U.S. State Department Web site on June 12, 2008. 

In addition to his extensive work with reintegration of child soldiers in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Chad and Liberia, Mike has written a book on Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection. Ishmael Beah has written a best-selling memoir A Long Way Gone about his experience in Sierra Leone as a child soldier.

Questions about reintegration of former child soldiers came online to the moderator and were answered by both Wessells and Beah. Both Wessells and Beah agree that former child soldiers can readjust to normal, peacetime society, but it is a long and difficult process. 

“Children can recover from this experience,” says Ishmael Beah, “though a long-term process and difficult.”  Wessells added that “There is very little truth to the idea that formerly recruited children are somehow a ‘Lost Generation’ and beyond repair.”

Beah, now 28, is the UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War and travels the world to lobby for government and private support for rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers.

“Socializing the children requires a strong community, society involvement, as the community, too, needs to heal and learn to accept the children again,” Beah told an international audience during the webchat on June 12.

Although the recruitment of children (anyone under the age of 18) for military purposes has been condemned by the United Nations, there are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers around the world today.

When asked about stigmatization, both Beah and Wessells said it is a persistent problem faced by former child soldiers when attempting to reintegrate into society. This is especially true for girls, who, in addition to fulfilling domestic roles in armies, might take on combat responsibilities as well.

Returning home can be harder for girls than for boys, according to Wessells, who has studied the effect of combat experience on girls.

“Many become pregnant and give birth, and many experience extreme reproductive health issues, STIs (sexually transmitted infections), and much greater amounts of stigma than do boys,” Wessells said.

Because communities tend to reject them, many girls choose to keep silent about their experiences, and much of the international public is still unaware of the problems of former girl soldiers, Wessells and Beah said.

“The image of a child soldier that has been portrayed internationally has been the boy with the AK-47,” Beah said. He recalled that girls in Sierra Leone were a large component of the army and they tended to avoid getting help for fear of rejection by their communities.

Wessells suggested the different problems girls face warrant different reintegration programs that specifically address their issues.

 “Any country that has an active armed conflict can expect that troop-hungry commanders will use children to fill their ranks,” Wessells said.  In addition, significant unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities can fuel political dissatisfaction among youths who resort to violence. Dealing with the problem of child soldiering is a multilateral process involving the cooperation of various U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

UNICEF has been an important force in organizing the release of child soldiers and works with partners to reintegrate them into society. The CCF, for instance, implements programs in communities that “develop holistic, culturally grounded support,” Wessells said.

“CCF finds in its work that the best approach includes youth participation and reintegration programs are more effective when they are guided by the voice, perspectives and priorities defined by young people themselves,” noted Wessells.

Both Beah and Wessells expressed hope for an end to child recruitment for combat purposes with the help of enough international advocacy.

Making the International Criminal Court more accountable for prosecuting recruiters, Wessells said, would be a significant preventive measure against child soldiering. Targeting the source of conflicts that draw children into military roles is also important, he said.

Beah expressed optimism that accountability and prevention will eventually bring an end to the involvement of children in warfare.

“I believe it will end,” Beah said. “I was in it, and I am no longer there. I have hope, as I cannot afford anything else. The alternative of giving up is worse.”