Recent focus on child soldiers and what the research says

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has made its first ruling, convicting Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga of using children younger than 15 as soldiers. For basic media coverage, see here, here, and here. The conviction if Lubanga is the ICC’s first in its decade of existence, and for those of you interested, the BBC has a decent discussion of the costs, estimated at $900 million, here.

Lubanga could have been accused of any number of war crimes, but the ICC chose to focus on child soldiering (due to the quality of evidence, say prosecutors). The recent Invisible Children anti-Joseph Kony video recently trending on Twitter (no need for a link, I’m sure) chooses to also focus on child soldiering. Clearly this is compelling stuff for the media as well as legal teams, nightmare material for those who love kids and those who fear teenagers. From the sympathetic side we often hear simplistic pronouncements like this one from today’s New York Times:

Social workers say that even if children have enlisted willingly, looking for food, status or protection, they are often still permanently damaged by war-time violence and drugs.

There is, however, a research literature on child soldiers that presents a more nuanced picture. Although certainly former child soldiers suffer higher rates of physical and mental health problems than similar kids, the research suggests that there is more hope for them than is commonly portrayed. The work of Jeannie Annan and Chris Blattman show that there is wide variability in what child soldiering actually entails, and, that former child soldiers — far from being permanently damaged — are more active in peaceful post-conflict political processes than their peers. Theresa Betancourt‘s work shows that symptoms of emotional distress decrease over time among many, and I believe she has plans underway for treatment trials for those with continuing problems. Brandon Kohrt’s work presents (among other things) complex stories of reintegration through film, as well as research articles.

All this is not to say that child soldiering is in some way really not so bad. Making this a cause is indeed appropriate. But there is more to the issue than just crazed violent teenagers and their adult bad guy overlords. Child soldiers become former child soldiers, adults who live lives and can contribute to their societies.

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