A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Helping Former Child Soldiers Reclaim Their Lives

March 17, 2011

By Robin Herron

Patricia Maulden

Mason conflict analyst Patricia Maulden can remember the day she first became drawn to the subject of child soldiers. It was 1996, and she was watching a C-SPAN broadcast on a new report, “Children: The Invisible Soldiers.” The report estimated that more than 250,000 children had been involved in wars over the previous 10 years.

At that time, Maulden, a mother of four who had worked in outpatient mental health, was horrified. She says the topic “literally grabbed me by the throat.” It seemed, she recalls, an indicator of the complete disorder of the system.

“I thought, if I’m going to go all the way through school to get my PhD, which was my plan, I’m going to have to find something I am passionate about, and child soldiers was it,” she says.

Maulden’s research on child soldiers, which did indeed become her dissertation (she earned both an MS and a PhD in conflict analysis and resolution from Mason), focused on the re-integration of children into society postconflict and explored postwar life for boys and girls in Sierra Leone and Mozambique in Africa and Colombia in South America. Now an assistant professor at Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, she has since focused on youth and peace building in the African countries of Liberia and Burundi, where she worked with Mason colleague Elavie Ndura-Ouédraogo, and has written a chapter on girl soldiers for a forthcoming book about women and war edited by Sandra I. Cheldelin and Maneshka Eliatamby.

In Africa, status, primarily marked by resources and marriage, traditionally determines whether one is a “youth,” Maulden explains. Thus, the age for “youth” can range from 15 to 35. But this traditional categorization is changing because of the impact of war and economic hardships on social and cultural norms, values, and practices.

Why and how do children or young teens become soldiers? In some cases, Maulden has found, commanders who need troops abduct them, but in many cases, they volunteer. Some want to escape poverty or dysfunctional families; others join to avenge wrongs done to their family or community; some may be attracted to the glamour of soldiering and the security they think it provides; and some may want to fight for their country. Or, all these motivations may factor into their decision.

Once in the army, some of these child soldiers form attachments to their commanders and their units, almost forming a substitute family for the one they left behind.

Former child soldiers in the Democritic Republic of Congo. USAID photo

Whatever their reasons for joining the military and whatever terrible war acts they committed willingly or unwillingly as soldiers, Maulden says she respects the young warriors for dealing with difficult situations. With jobs nonexistent, food scarce, and a sense of belonging missing in their lives, Maulden believes the boys and girls who served in the armies generally did what they did to survive.

Now returned to civilian life, the former soldiers are politically savvy and “do conflict analysis like nobody’s business,” Maulden says. “They understand dynamics and a lot about resolution and practical matters. And they have a lot to offer.”

But with the stigma attached to them for having been soldiers (a double stigma for girls because they stepped so far outside traditional gender expectations), these youths have a difficult time finding a place in traditional societal culture.

Some excombatants have formed organizations to help them deal with their experience as soldiers and feel better about themselves. “They talk about rehumanizing people’s ways of thinking about themselves and others,” she says.

Some returning from wars have bought farmland and are trying to rebuild communities around the farms. Other former child soldiers are working for nongovernmental organizations or establishing their own groups to address the needs they see, seeking funds from larger, global institutions.

While the wars ended in the countries Maulden has studied, conflict continues elsewhere, as does the use of child soldiers.

“Child soldiers are just a fact of modern warfare,” Maulden says. “Young boys and men have always been involved in wars, but they were given menial tasks, then they would apprentice, and they would train. When they reached adult status, perhaps they would go into battle. Now they just start them young, give them a gun, and say, ‘Go for it.’”

There are young people fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, Maulden notes. “Anywhere there is fighting, you’re going to have kids fighting. They’re very cheap to maintain, there’s a large supply of children, and they’re expendable.”

Even though international agreements promising not to use youth under age 18 in combat have been signed by various countries, emergency situations override those declarations. And rebel factions are not party to such agreements. Even naming-and-shaming campaigns that publicly point to regimes using child soldiers, while having some effect, are not long-term deterrents.

“Realistically,” says Maulden, “I don’t know how it can be stopped unless leaders shift their thinking from short-term expediency and say, ‘The long-term cost is too high.’”

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