Children in Conflicts: Big Challenges, Small Solutions

A former child soldier, Manju Gurung's ordeal began at age 13 when she was kidnapped by Maoist guerrilla forces who regularly held recruitment programs in schools near her village in central Nepal under the "One Family, One Member" campaign.

Five years later, Gurung described building roads and tilling the land so that the Maoists could win local support in the area. "We had to wear shorts and short sleeve shirts and do leopard crawls while training and my skin had cuts, scabs and bruises," she told the United Nations Security Council, last month.

A peace agreement saved Gurung from putting her AK 47 and bomb detonation skills to use. But seven children in Afghanistan were used as suicide bombers in 2009.

Attacks on schools are increasing and thousands of children remain captives of militias as well as armies. The scale of atrocities dwarfs the efforts made by the U.N. and other humanitarian organization to stop these violations.

Recently, U.N. experts claim that two schemes appear to have achieved some progress in protecting children trapped in conflicts -- engaging directly with non-state actors and the "naming and shaming" policy. Both, however, remain limited in their use.

Out of the many insurgent outfits recruiting children, the U.N. has been able to reach out to only a handful. Governments do not allow humanitarian agencies to meet non-state actors in their countries and insurgent groups shun interacting with outsiders.

"Without access for dialogue with non-state actors on action plans, the chances of securing the release of children is very slim," said Radhika Coomarswamy, the top U.N. diplomat on child protection.

Although some organizations like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) of the Philippines have signed an action plan with the U.N. to stop recruiting children, establishing contact with groups like Taliban and Al Qaeda is problematic.

"We would like to meet them but we haven't been able to establish humanitarian access with either of them," said Coomaraswamy.

The U.N. also asserts that its "naming and shaming" policy has compelled some groups to reassess their actions.

"It is a motivation even for the rebel leaders that hardly know about the Security Council but know enough about it to be a little scared about it," said Hilde Johnson, the deputy chief of UNICEF. "So it works."

The Sudan People's Liberation Army of South Sudan, for instance, is on the list of U.N. persistent violators and has entered into an action plan for the release of children associated with their forces, and the Maoist Party of Nepal has released all minors.

The absence of funds, however, makes it hard to sustain these children once they are freed. The U.N., for instance, is presently struggling with the reintegration of the former MILF child soldiers.

"Unless we provide the U.N. in the Philippines assistance to secure schooling or livelihood training, they will either be re-recruited or tempted by other less peaceful avenues," said Coomarswamy.

Other initiatives are also on the table. In June, the Security Council expressed its "readiness" to impose targeted sanctions against people who recruit, sexually abuse, maim and kill children in war. This initiative now has to make it ways through various sanctions committees of the U.N.

An estimated 9500 children were released in 2009, along with an additional 5900 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 3000 from Nepal and 1,400 from Sudan this year. The U.N., however, cannot gauge the impact of these numbers since there are no records that give a clear picture of how many children are being used in armed conflicts.

Experts note that in addition to the traditional type of child soldier that emerged from the past wars of Sierra Leone and Liberia, children are filling new roles like suicide bombers in Afghanistan and are being used by all sides for gathering military intelligence.

Somalia is especially troubling because not only is recruitment being done by the al Qaeda linked extremist group, al Shabab, but also the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which is partly funded by the United States and enjoys support of the U.N.

The government has denied recruiting children but, under international pressure, it has offered to carry out an investigation and report back.

"Somalia is the only country in the world where an entire generation over two decades has known only violence and conflict," said Johnson. "We're still not seeing progress in Somalia."