By: Dr. Shelly Whitman and Josh Boyter.
Not every child solider carries a gun, but you would not know that by what you represented in the media.
From ISIS to Boko Haram and beyond, the armed groups have and continue to use images of child soldiers as a weapon of war on the ground, through the airwaves and online. This continued inundation of imagery of children in military training, firing weapons while being used to perform summary executions and suicide bombings are relentless.
The graphic and violent nature of these images creates a lasting impression — from the general public to policy makers. But the realities children face and their use as weapons of war is far more complex. Their roles in state and non-state armies are often not clearly defined, where they are transformed and moulded into different positions — as porters, in sexual servitude, as frontline combatants — depending on competing demands and needs.
In 2002, an international coalition came together to create Red Hand Day, the international day against the use of child soldiers. Every Feb. 12 since, for the past 16 years, the Red Hand with a child in military fatigues and a gun has come to symbolize the complex reality that is the issue of child soldiers. Yet, ask most individuals today what this symbol means or the issue it represents, and you would be hard pressed to get a conclusive response.
No matter how important a cause may be nor how grotesque the human rights violation, it is the unfortunate reality that a cause without a brand cannot compete, no matter how important it may be. A cause has to contend with competing priorities, shrinking attention spans, column inches and limited characters on social media news feeds. It needs to capture the imagination of the public, yet be easy enough to comprehend and put in motion the legislative pen of policy makers.
Re-conceptualizing how you sell an issue is fraught with peril and can cause more harm than good. A good case in point — Kony 2012.
Kony 2012, released by Invisible Children, was a video campaign driven by a simplistic story line, sleek editing and an engaging use of a founder and his child. The video was then catapulted into the public discourse and imagination. However, by the time the video launched and the streets were to be overrun by those engaged one month later, it had failed.
Invisible Children, an organization since shuttered, is a cautionary tale of advocacy run amok, and how creating false narratives of a complex issue can continue to adversely affect the work and image of the issue every day. It continued to perpetrate negative stereotypes about Africa as well as victim and hero archetypes. The result was that it caused a media frenzy that only served to further remove the lived experiences of those children used as weapons of war from those who have the power to make change.
As advocates, it is important that we match the message to the medium. It is no longer good enough to say that this issue is important and expect people to agree. Those who work on this issue must learn how to use the tools that are available and be novel in our approach.
This brand must be matched with strong stories from the ground that pay respect to the lived realities of those who are impacted by this issue — from the frontline staff, to the peacekeeper to the children who face conflict and difficult choices about survival every day. Until we are able to honour and pay homage to these varied perspectives, we will not do justice to their experiences and build a resilient brand to represent the issue that should have the ultimate goal of creating solutions.
Today, efforts to end the use of child soldiers are in desperate need of a new brand, one that can compete with the often slick and commercial quality work that those who use children as weapons of war employ. Advocacy needs to be tied directly to impactful interventions on the ground and sustained support to see the work through both times of good and difficulty. It is time that we finally make the issue of child soldiers truly "unthinkable."
Dr. Shelly Whitman is the Executive Director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. Josh Boyter is the Director of Communications for the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.