Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Do child soldiers always want to be saved?

Child soldiers are an object of pity in the western world, in dire need of saving. But as humanitarian actors working to reintegrate them know, it’s not always that simple.

Sylvie Bodineau
23 August 2019
A roadside in Kinshasa, DRC.
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FredR./Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

I am both an anthropologist and a practitioner of humanitarian child protection, currently researching the way humanitarian child protection addresses the recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups. I spent nearly twenty years in the field before returning to university to ‘think my profession’ from a critical point of view. This position puts me right in the middle of the tension between academic know-it-alls and humanitarian do-gooders. It also allows me, I hope, to have a different, more nuanced, and informed insight regarding humanitarian action.

From my position as a practitioner/researcher, I have deployed the approach used in the field of anthropology of human rights practice to research this topic in two different ways. First, I explored documents produced by humanitarian child protection actors operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1996 and 2012. My goal was to analyse the ways child soldiers were portrayed and how this portrayal had influenced the design and implementation of humanitarian programmes aiming to protect them. This research revealed the way in which assumptions about morality can end up consecrating ‘the child’ as uniquely and universally vulnerable, thereby triggering a humanitarian imperative to save the children.

Programmes designed solely on the idea of victimhood are ineffective in supporting child soldiers’ return to civilian life.

Additional layers are invested in the category of ‘child soldier,’ which connects innocence with barbarism to create something that is morally intolerable. This transforms potentially violent children into victims to protect, and directs our attention to their suffering instead of their responsibility. Such portrayals, even when created for good reasons, are often at odds with local understandings of the phenomenon. They contradict the high level of agency and decision-making capacity that these children have demonstrated. As a result, the programmes designed solely on the idea of victimhood are, are least in part, ineffective in supporting these children’s return to civilian life.

As part of this research agenda, I went to a small town in western DRC between 2013 and 2015 to examine a programme supporting the reintegration of former child soldiers. My goal was to establish, at least partially, a collaborative process of knowledge production that would reflect the lived, collective history of this programme. I worked closely with the NGO that had implemented it between 2007 and 2011, discussing the methods that I would use and asking them to help me identify the participants. We met at places chosen by my interlocutors, where I asked them to talk about their experiences of the conflict and the programme in the way they wanted. Only when they were done did I propose some additional questions. Once the first round of interviews was complete, I held focus groups where I introduced new questions (building on the individual interviews) for discussion. Finally, I presented the primary results of my research back to the interlocutors in order to check the accuracy of my understanding and to elicit comments and further discussions.

The legacies of war live on in former child soldiers

Even if they expressed suffering, their varied narratives highlighted their agency by detailing the many reasons why they enlisted in armed groups, why they remained in them, and also why they escaped from them. These narratives were a world away from the stories of victimhood and redemption that can be found in numerous autobiographies of former child soldiers published in the Western world.

For example, one young woman, who was married to a civilian and the mother of two children at the time of our encounter, spoke of the difficulties she experiencing in daily civilian life. She regretted that “her military spirit had been taken away from her during the demobilization process”. Abducted by an armed group at a time when she didn't feel comfortable at home with her mother-in-law, she was trained as a radio operator and married to her military trainer.

Despite the fact that her military husband abandoned her shortly after the birth of her first child, she felt the harsh living conditions of the front line were better than what she had experienced as a civilian. Within the armed group, at least, she was well respected and recognised for her role as a radio operator and fighter. In contrast to this, she was sad with the state of her civilian conjugal life. Her husband constantly blamed her for being an ex-soldier. She also felt that the reintegration programme, which had not sufficiently trained her to generate her own income and be more independent, had not lived up to its promises.

Demobilisation without compensation was putting them at the bottom of social order.

Other interlocutors also recounted the ways they navigated and contested intervention programmes. Some, for example, while describing their military experience as empowering, expressed the feeling of having missed opportunities compared to their civilian peers. This was a loss that the reintegration programmes were unable to fill, and they complained that demobilisation without any compensation was putting them at the bottom of social order. Comparing their fate to the adult soldiers who received some ‘benefits’ at the moment of demobilisation, some of them had violently claimed what they considered their due as ex-combatants by taking social workers hostage and/or looting the NGO property and premises.

In contrast, the narratives of interveners (NGO founders, social workers, foster families, vocational trainers) revealed a common conviction that the demobilisation and reintegration of child soldiers was necessary for the DRC to return to a civilian social order at the end of the conflict. They were aware that programmes had been applied inconsistently, something they attributed to a lack of resources, and said that they had persevered with their work despite episodes of violence from the children in the hopes of eventually establishing a strong relationship with them.

This research was completed several years ago. Looking back, my choice to focus on personal experiences within a reintegration programme rather than on life stories of suffering and redemption, and my tactical decision to use a non-directive interview format, opened up space for different perspectives on child soldiering and humanitarian child protection. More particularly, this research confirms that understandings about child soldiering, tightly linked to contexts, have a strong influence on the interventions aiming to protect children. It highlights the fact that humanitarian intervention is much more than a way to offer reparations to victims. It also establishes a space of transaction, not only of benefits and services, but also of status, recognition, dignity – all aspects that should be better considered by both researchers and humanitarian practitioners.

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