Children in war: Child soldiers still rampant in Mindanao

 

Just mention of the word "child soldier" is enough to elicit emotions of indignation, pity and maybe even a profound sense of rage at the thought of wasted youth. The word "child solider" also conjures up images of war-ravaged countries where anarchy reigns and drives-necessitates, even-children to pick up guns rather than toys. Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq come to mind. The Philippines is included in that list.

According to the 2008 Global Report made by the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, "there has been a noted continued involvement over years of children in government-linked paramilitaries and Mindanao armed groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)."

Previously, the MILF acknowledged the presence of children (below 18, as defined by international law) in its 21 base camps scattered in Mindanao, but stressed that they only performed simple chores likes fetching water and other errands. The MILF further explained that the presence of children was not as a combatant, but as a family member.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, Under-Secretary General Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and the local country office of UNICEF have been working closely with armed groups to stop the conscription of both young boys and girls. Coomaraswamy was in the country to last week on a follow up visit to get an update on the progress that was made from her last visit two years ago when an action plan to release their child soldiers was entered into with the MILF.

To date, an estimated 600 children have been registered by trained community members with the support of UNICEF. "In Mindanao, where girls and boys are born into communities where armed elements are a constant feature, we have to get the entire village working on the successful protection of children," SRSG Coomaraswamy emphasized.

Records show that among the identified 600 children, 73% are boys and 27% are girls, and majority is between 15 to 18 years old. Some though, are as young as eight years old. The ongoing process of registration of children associated with the armed group will be completed in nine months. She further emphasized the need to prevent recruitment by ensuring that these children have access to basic services such as education, health and community programs.

Community-like camps

Often the camps, which appear more like communities, double as homes for the children who cannot be away from their families. Differentiating between "camps" and "communities" is
increasingly difficult. Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF, has also consistently specified that under Muslim Law, a child at the age of 15 is considered an adult and has to fulfill the duty to help in the struggle for Muslim autonomy.

Acknowledging these nuances, Coomaraswamy suggested that official ceremonies take place for children to mark the beginning of a life away from conflict. "There is perhaps more a need for the rehabilitation of the children, rather than their reintegration. In Mindanao where girls and boys are born into communities where armed elements are a constant feature we have to get the entire village working on the successful protection of children. "

Nonetheless, the children are living in highly militarized environment. "These children should be in school." There will also be education programs for the children and for those children who are too old to school or don't want to go to school there will be livelihood programs.

Progress with other armed groups

Similar progress was made with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) who
also agreed to develop an Action Plan, to be finalized with the NDFP leadership, which will
ensure that no children are among the ranks of the New People's Army (NPA) or involved in the
conflict.

"It is the first time that we have been able to reach out to the NDFP and I am hopeful that we
will be able to sign an Action Plan as soon as possible," Coomaraswamy said. The NPA, the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf Group, are all listed in the Secretary-General's annexes to the report on children and armed conflict for using and recruiting girls and boys.

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