The fate of child soldiers

Recent news has demonstrated that Aegis, a British security firm, has been hiring child soldiers. Here, Vanessa Cameron discusses new research that asks what can be done to support child soldiers, once conflicts have stopped.

Few feature films have focused so explicitly on the case of children being recruited as soldiers as 2015’s ‘Beasts of No Nation’, which starred Idris Elba as the commandant of a rebel unit in an unnamed and war torn African country. The film brutally portrays the lives of child soldiers, and at times is difficult to watch – centering on 9 year old Agu who is recruited by the commandant and forced to partake in unspeakable violence, which will no doubt go on to shape the way he views and engages with the world.

While this story in itself isn’t true, it draws many parallels to the reality in which children are recruited to be soldiers – an estimated 250,000 currently – and leaves you to wonder what kind of support there is in place for child soldiers when they are no longer involved in conflict and must return to some semblance of normality.

This was brought in to focus most recently with the disturbing revelation that former child soldiers involved in the civil war in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002 were now working as mercenaries in Iraq, guarding bases.

The firm at the centre of the allegations: Aegis, is a UK based security firm, which has claimed it has been pressured to cut costs and due to high unemployment rates in Sierra Leone, many recruits were hired without any checking of their background. Africans, it was admitted, by the former director of Aegis Defence Services, were the cheapest labour and little thought was put in to the background of these guards, hired to protect western bases. The story broke alongside a film released in Denmark directed by Mads Ellesoe, called “The Child Soldiers New Job.

Hdptcar / Creative Commons License

Hdptcar / Creative Commons License

Former Aegis Director of Defence Services, James Ellery suggests that ‘it would be quite wrong to ask recruits if they had been child soldiers, penalising them for something they had no choice in.’ But such a justification for this action rings hollow when the wage for a Sierra Leonian security guard working for Aegis is just £11 a day, raising the question on whether their background is not being checked because Aegis are concerned about unfairly penalising former child soldiers, (unlikely) or because they’d rather not bother and thus blithely continue to employ those who may suffer from post-traumatic stress, at an extremely low cost.

And while you may not wish to penalise child soldiers for something they had no fault in, giving them work as security guards seems a somewhat irresponsible action. Surely putting someone who at such young age has experienced and perpetrated gratuitous violence, should not then be responsible for acting as a security guard. A security guard needs to be able to act on a certain degree of judgement about danger, using it only when it is completely necessary to protect what they are paid to secure. The issue of hiring child soldiers is also inextricably linked to the privatisation of war in which American and British forces subcontract military operations to private companies, where the emphasis is on making a profit and there are far less stringent checks on who is being employed.

Control Arms / Creative Commons License

Control Arms / Creative Commons License

Researcher Theresa Betancourt’s longitudinal study of child soldiers in Sierra Leona paints a picture of the sort of horrors they might have faced: 63% had witnessed violent death and 77% saw stabbings, chopping, and shooting close-up. Betancourt, directs the Research Program on Children and Global Adversity at Harvard University and her research brings to light the extent of the issues and what might work in addressing them. Her studies although ongoing and not yet conclusive suggest that an effective way to improve the wellbeing of former child soldiers is to ensure the stigma that might surround them when they return to their communities is addressed so that they feel welcome and safe where they once lived. But it is obviously not a simple process and in a country where there is just one psychiatrist, any support systems that are in place for former child soldiers are likely to face many challenges.

Ultimately while not wanting to deem all former child soldiers as being unfit as security guards, it appears hugely unethical to play on their trauma through offering work of an often violent nature, whether it is intentionally exploiting their past experience or not. When the reality is that research into the effects of a child soldier’s experience on their mental health is limited, it surely should not be the case that any job will do.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.