Listen: Cho Cho from the Freedom Project in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
Of all the egregious elements of human trafficking and modern slavery, perhaps one of the most horrendous is the use of child soldiers.
Children as young as five or six are forced into a brutal and violent life and expected to commit terrible crimes.
In addition to the risk they will be maimed or killed, the psychological trauma experienced by child soldiers is often extreme and is unimaginable for people who live in peaceful, secure societies like Australia.
However, recruitment of child soldiers is happening near to us in Asia in countries like the Philippines, Myanmar, India and Thailand.
Boko Haram used 83 children as ‘human bombs’
In fact it is a shocking global problem of child exploitation by armed forces and non-state armed groups around the world.
An online database, the Child Soldiers World Index, developed by human rights group Child Soldiers International, was released in February 2018 and maps the enormous scale of the issue.
The Child Soldiers World Index shows that children have been used in war in at least 18 countries since 2016.
The use of children, including large numbers of girls, as ‘human bombs’ is one alarming new trend.
Boko Haram used 83 children as ‘human bombs’ in the first eight months of 2017 and 66% of them were girls.
During 2017, more than 3,000 cases of child recruitment in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were verified, at least 19,000 under-18s are a part of deepening conflict in South Sudan and recruitment levels doubled in the Middle East.
115,000 child soldiers have been freed since 2000
Since it was adopted in 2000, 167 countries have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (‘OPAC’) – the child soldier treaty – 30 have yet to do so.
Great progress has been made since OPAC’s adoption and the UN has helped free more than 115,000 child soldiers since 2000, but tens of thousands continue to be exploited.
Every year, the UN Secretary-General publishes a “list of shame” showing which state armed forces and non-state armed groups recruit and use children.
The countries on the UN’s list of shame for 2017 are: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The Freedom Project rescues child soldiers
In addition to countries on the UN list, non-state armed groups also recruit children in India Pakistan, Israel/State of Palestine, Libya, Philippines and Thailand.
The list is probably not complete, since commanders who use children often try to escape notice.
One of the groups working hard to help child soldiers is the Australian Christian Charity, the Freedom Project.
The Freedom Project works in the Philippines and in Myanmar to stop the use of child soldiers.
The charity operate in an high-conflict areas in both countries where rebel groups are very active and always seeking to recruit more militants – which unfortunately often ends up being children.
Children are coerced or tricked into joining under the pretence of military training or conscription, but are mistreated and not given the freedom to return home.
The Freedom Project works collaboratively with locals, authorities and families to provide education for those vulnerable to these risks.
Education reduces the risk of them returning to fight
Investment in livelihood projects is an important part of the strategy to provide viable alternatives for families who are poor and may be tempted by other offers of employment that may be exploitative.
Providing the opportunity for education is a very important aspect of the Freedom Project strategy.
These children would otherwise miss out on education and education reduces the risk of them returning to fight.
The focus is on literacy and basic education standards, as well as trauma support, health and wellbeing, life skills, and vocational training.
Cho is a very brave woman from the Philippines who works in partnership with The Freedom Project to provide a way out of human trafficking and child soldiering for the children, their families and communities.
On Open House, Cho shared some of the stories of the child soldiers she has rescued.