06/06/2015 08:43 EDT | Updated 06/06/2016 05:59 EDT

A Changing Battlefield Complicates the Fight to Help Child Soldiers

Young boys, children soldiers sit on February 10, 2015 with their rifles at a ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor oversawn by UNICEF and partners. UNICEF and its partners have overseen the release of another 300 children from the Cobra Faction armed group of former rebels of David Yau Yau. The children in Pibor, Jonglei State, surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction and supported by UNICEF. They were to spend their first night in an interim care center where they will be provided with food, water and clothing. They will also have access to health and psychosocial services. AFP PHOTO/Charles LOMODONG (Photo credit should read CHARLES LOMODONG/AFP/Getty Images)

Without guns, tanks, or warplanes, the United Nations won a stunning victory on the battlefield.

After months of complicated negotiation, in May the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) convinced 10 armies involved in the conflict in the Central African Republic to stop recruiting children and release all of the estimated 6,000 to 10,000 child soldiers already serving in their ranks.

On May 14, the first cohort of 357 young fighters--some less than 12 years old -- gave up their weapons. They were met by doctors and nurses for a full health checkup, before social workers began the long process of helping them learn to be kids again. In time, the children will be reunited with their families. Others will be placed in foster homes until their relatives, hopefully, can be found.

It's a tremendous win in what Meg French, director of international policy and programs for UNICEF Canada, describes as "a bad year for child soldiers."

Every day we witness the power of young people to transform their communities and the world. The potential lost when a child is handed an AK-47 instead of a schoolbook or soccer ball is one of the greatest tragedies imaginable.

UNICEF estimates that 300,000 boys and girls under 18 are actively involved in more than 30 different conflicts around the world. A few get support jobs like cooking or hauling ammunition, but most are handed a gun and thrown into combat. But even they are fortunate compared to the girls forced to serve as sex slaves.

There have been important strides in ending the barbaric practice of militarizing children.

Last year, the UN launched its "Children, Not Soldiers" campaign, targeting eight problem countries to stamp out the recruitment of children by national security forces. Most of these nations, which include Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, have begun the process of discharging children from their armies. Chad has already been removed from the UN list of countries where child soldiers are found.

But even as governments stop recruiting children, over the past year militias and terror groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, have horrifyingly indoctrinated thousands more. And the way these militias use their children is changing in terrifying ways.

The Islamic State, says French, straps explosive belts on children and sends them off as suicide bombers. In some cases, the children don't even know what they are wearing, or doing. They unwittingly walk into crowds, and in an act of true cowardice, an adult terrorist detonates the bombs on their bodies remotely from a safe distance.

But perhaps the biggest change is in recruitment. Where once most child soldiers were kidnapped at gunpoint, French says many more are now entering service willingly.

This seems hard to fathom. But as national armies are unable to control groups like Boko Haram -- the radical anti-western Islamic militia that last year kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls -- children are volunteering to defend their communities. The Civilian Joint Task Force, a militia in northeastern Nigeria made up of villagers who are determined to battle Boko Haram, admits that one quarter of its 10,000 fighters are kids.

For some impoverished families, sending their child into the military is a desperate measure to put food on the table. It's child soldiers and child labour rolled into one appalling package.

French says the only way to tackle these new developments is to educate communities and families about how turning their children into soldiers hurts not only the kids, but ultimately the entire community.

We are proud that Canada is playing a leadership role on this pressing issue. Our country has driven Security Council resolutions on child soldiers, and Canada chairs the international organization, The Group of Friends on Children and Armed Conflict.

Ending the recruitment of child soldiers would be the most powerful military victory ever.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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