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Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach
Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach

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4.5 Strategies for reintegrating child soldiers

Activity 6 Rehabilitating child soldiers

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

Child soldiers in several African countries have been guilty of committing atrocities against civilians. To what extent do you feel that child soldiers ought to be held accountable for their crimes?


For many, the rehabilitation of child soldiers is very problematic. The term ‘rehabilitation’ is itself contested, as it implies that responsibility is removed from the society that generated the violence in the first place and that it is the individual children who are at fault and need to be resocialized. Others have argued that, whatever they have done, they are still children and cannot be held responsible for actions that they did not necessarily understand. However, many of those who have suffered because of the violence of child soldiers believe that they should be tried and punished. There is a great reluctance to see them as anything other than the perpetrators of particularly gruesome acts. As one child soldier told a researcher:

I am eleven years old now. Five years of my life was characterized by cutting limbs, killing, raping and drug abuse. Here I am. I cannot trace my relatives. I beg for food in the streets of Freetown. Even if I find my relatives, who will want to take a child like me? … My innocence was exploited, my development was violently suppressed, my identity contaminated almost irreparably; my parents and anything that gave me a sense of safety was annihilated.

(International Bureau for Children's Rights, 2000)

The issue of rehabilitating child soldiers is a very fraught one. Successful rehabilitation depends strongly on the circumstances of the war and the actions of the children.

Communities that have been caught up in war view children's involvement in violence in ways that are contingent on the nature, length and ferocity of the conflict; the choice or lack of choice the young had in participating; the actions they carried out; and the consequences for members of the family. Clearly attitudes to the young who fight against oppression and for liberation differ profoundly from attitudes to the young who kill and maim as members of warring groups.

(Reynolds, 2001)

However, there is a recognition that these children must be returned to their communities in order to break the cycle of violence. For example, encouraged by local mosques and churches, some adults in Sierra Leone have become foster parents to former child soldiers, attempting to teach them about family life and to trust adults again. Nevertheless, in some cases in Sierra Leone and Uganda communities have not felt able to have child soldiers back among them until they have been disarmed and debriefed by an outside agency. In this instance, healing cannot take place only in the community and a third party is involved. To this end, some agencies have set up camps where children are counselled and reintegration is attempted. This may involve children confronting their victims and being forced to account for themselves and ask for forgiveness. But many of these children also need to come to terms with what happened to them and to forgive those who forced them into becoming child soldiers. In one such centre in Uganda, thirteen-year-old Charles Oranga describes meeting the man who kidnapped him and forced him into becoming a soldier:

I felt like killing my kidnapper when I first met him … But then I was told that he had only done it because he was forced to – and I later did the same thing as well.

That made me see the other side: it is not hard to forgive someone when they tell you that. We ended up playing football together. He's not a friend, but I have no hatred anymore.

(Wazir, 1999, p. 1)

At the time of writing, in Uganda and Sierra Leone, such projects are having some success, but the number of children involved is still small. The scale of the problem is also overwhelming. Not only do these children have emotional scars but they often have physical ones too. One project in Sierra Leone removes the tattoos and scars that children were marked with (or in some instances inflicted on themselves) which branded them as members of a particular militia. By getting rid of these markers, it is hoped that children will not be permanently reminded by their bodies of the atrocities that they witnessed and committed.

There is, however, no one acknowledged model of how to treat child soldiers or indeed any children so dramatically affected by violence, especially those caught up in brutal conflicts in Africa and Asia. While Western experts tend to look to therapy and counselling, some commentators have begun to question whether this is an appropriate response. Indeed, many now prefer to emphasize models of healing and forgiveness rather than counselling or psychological help (see Reynolds, 2001). Community mediation has had some successes and some non-governmental organizations support it as a way of ending the violence that dominates those countries. The role of children themselves in this is also crucial. They must be seen not as passive victims who need to be ‘rehabilitated’ but as active agents who can rebuild their communities and act as peacemakers in the reintegration process.

However, this is far from straightforward. When resources are scarce, as they usually are in war-torn countries, rehabilitation of child soldiers is often a low priority. When communities have been destroyed, it is impossible to reintegrate a child into a community that no longer exists. Furthermore, many wars in which children are involved do not have a clear ending, so that anxiety remains entrenched. Community mediations and child peacemakers are therefore no panacea. They must be seen as one more strategy alongside rebuilding communities and countries destroyed by war, supporting people's attempts to work and to gain education for their children. Helping child soldiers should be seen in the context of the resources that a country has and the way it chooses to spend them.

Summary of Section 4

  • War affects many aspects of society and therefore all children in societies at war are affected by violence, even if they do not experience violence directly.

  • Children are involved in armed conflict in many countries, not only in the South. In Northern Ireland, children have suffered as a consequence of the military and paramilitary presence.

  • Children can be targeted directly by military and paramilitary groups and be either forced to become involved or punished for not doing so.

  • Some child soldiers join for ideological reasons or to protect their homes and families.

  • It is very difficult to reintegrate children into their communities if they are perceived to have been responsible for violence against it. Western-style counselling has proved inappropriate in many instances. Community reintegration programmes, where the emphasis has been placed on healing and forgiveness, have had greater success in some African countries.