Seeing the Whole Picture: Violence

Child soldiers are not just in Africa
African children toting machine guns is the stereotype, but kids are recruited in militias all over the world. Tyler Ward of Project AK-47, a nonprofit working to help rescue child soldiers, explains the acceptance of this tragic practice, the prevalence of girl soldiers and why working with local organizations is crucial.

“Modern-day Myanmar—the country we started a pilot project in 1998—statistically has an estimate of 100,000 child soldiers within its borders, which would make it the largest concentration of child soldiers in a country in the world. Obviously in Africa the countries are smaller, so within a couple countries there’s a lot there. I know another major emergency is in Colombia, in South America. We don’t personally work there, but we had an advocate down in Colombia submit a video for a YouTube contest and it got so much attention that we actually had an invitation to start a project down there in South America.”

Poverty, ethnic wars and drug trafficking feed into child soldiering

“It is very much ethnically based. Burma is split into four tribes of people. We work within one of those people groups that essentially has been the most marginalized. They’re known for drug trafficking; that’s kind of their trade. It’s very much inspired and motivated by ethnic conflicts that threaten war and cause people to conscript children into militias in order to protect themselves.

Poverty is a large enabler of the issue. [There’s] a level of desperation you find in every society in the world, but specifically in Southeast Asia there’s a whole different level of that desperation from the poverty. Specifically within the tribal world because of the drug trafficking, there’s a mentality that children are no good unless they’re serving a larger purpose for their people. As young as they can start to carry drugs or serve the tribe, they’re thrown in that labor.”

In many places, it’s simply accepted that children will be conscripted

“Probably about 50 percent of the kids we pull out of the militias do have to go through rehab for some sort of drug addiction. We know drugs are being used to brainwash and manipulate these kids into being soldiers. Obviously there’s a culture that’s built into this part of the world that we’ve noticed where the innocence is taken from this kid, but it’s become a very viable option for parents to either sell their kids or give their kids to the local militias. In a lot of cases we’ve seen, it really hasn’t taken addiction to drugs to manipulate the kids; it’s just become a part of their culture, which is really the most tragic thing. In a lot of ways, it’s just a very accepted practice, and I think that’s a huge misconception. It doesn’t help us in our case in the West, because if you tend to dramatize something it pricks our Hollywood culture. But in a lot of ways, it’s not a drama movie. It’s not an action film. It’s a very real part of their culture and something that requires more than just going in with a gun and taking kids. It requires a cultural and societal engagement to be able to change this over a long period of time. Even larger than our rescue project is seeing a society’s mind change of using children for any sort of war.”

Many of the children rescued in Asia are female

“About a third of the children we’ve rescued are girls, which plays into the statistic that about a third of the child soldiers in Southeast Asia are girls. We obviously deal with the sexual end of things. Boys and girls alike are sexually abused, but girls more so than boys. In a lot of cases there is a level of sexual healing and a process there—and within the cases of girls there’s far more sexual exploitation.”

The recovery process is heart-wrenching, but there is hope

“[Rescue] is by no means romantic. It’s mostly our national teams who are on a face-to-face relational [level] with our kids. It is a very challenging process, and yet one that provides—we do see the side of hope. We watch these kids go through a very hard and challenging process of healing, and yet come out on the other side as functional human beings who can contribute to their societies. There have been cases that have gone in guns blazing and rescuing, but the reality we face is that it’s definitely a long, drawn-out process. On the other end, the hope and the romance of seeing these kids turn around is fantastic.”

Partnering with local organizations is key

“There’s three different things we’re going after. One is this situation with young girls; number two is just classic kind of cartel. With the help of a partner, we’ve been able to pull three boys out in the last month and give them adequate protection from the cartel for them to be able to go through rehab. The third avenue is an issue of kids being used to traffic drugs through the mountains of Mexico because most of the drugs are harvested there. We have a relational connection there as well, where a gentleman has gone in and witnessed these extremely young kids—as young as 4 or 5 years old—being used as scouts for traffickers, as well as being packed full of drugs to walk through borders. So through those relational connections we have those three different expressions of projects being developed right now.”

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