Enduring Scars: Child Soldiers and Mental Health

December 13, 2012

“Compelled to become instruments of war, to kill and be killed, child soldiers are forced to give violent expression to the hatreds of adults.” Olara Otunnu, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict

Humanitarian and former Force Commander for the United Nations Peacekeeping force in Rwanda Roméo Dallaire addressed the University Historical Society at Trinity College Dublin on November 16th.  Senator Dallaire founded the NGO Child Soldiers Initiative, and is the author of They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, a call for action to the international community to acknowledge and resolve the cancerous situation regarding child soldiers around the world.

Near 300,000 child soldiers are active today in 30 conflicts around the world.  In places like Uganda, Myanmar and Colombia boys and girls are forced to enter the ranks of an army due to poverty or forced conscription where they are used as sexual objects or cannon fodder, then discarded when no longer valuable to the cause.  After witnessing murder, torture and all manner of atrocity at a vulnerable age, these children often suffer from destructive and lasting mental health issues that ensure the detrimental effects of the conflict do not fade.

As Senator Dallaire discussed, children that have been forced into combat as child soldiers have significantly higher levels of emotional and behavioural problems when compared to non-abducted children. The traumatic experiences that these children are forced to experience lead to increased incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and psychological distress.  Even when being compared to other children that lived through civil wars and have witnessed the brutality of war, former child soldiers suffer from markedly higher levels of psychological disorders.

One such study of former child soldiers in Northern Uganda found that over half of the respondents had become orphans during the conflict as both of their parents had been killed, and over 80% suffered from PTSD and psychological distress.  After witnessing massacres and being forced to kill neighbours, child soldiers are left with emotional scars that persist after the last shots have been fired.

Although sometimes seen as a “male-only” phenomenon, nearly 40% of reported child soldiers are female.  Recruited or coerced by force to become soldiers, young girls witness the same violence as their male counterparts, but experience a significantly increased level of sexual abuse and rape.   Senator Dallaire emphasised the fact that these traumatic events lead to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility in girls; and even after the conflict has ceased and the combatants return to their home villages, women are often shunned because of their past as a soldier and due to the very sexual violence that lead to these mental health issues.

DDR or Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration rule the international community’s response in post-conflict situations.  But for children whose only memories are made up of scenes from a war reintegration proves to be extraordinarily difficult.  Rehabilitation programs often focus on education, psychological counselling and livelihood training, but new methods such as art therapy have shown great promise.  After treatment, children who have lost family members and have witnessed or committed acts of abhorrent violence must be reintegrated back into their societies and live with former victims or enemies in order to resurrect a semblance of normalcy.

Hundreds of thousands of children around the world are being forced to commit inhuman acts to further the destructive ends of warlords. Growing up in a world surrounded by death and violence leaves these children vulnerable to depression, PTSD and other mental health disorders that impede the reintegration of former child soldiers.  Even after the last bullet has been fired and the battle wounds have healed, the emotional and psychological injuries that former child soldiers experience continue to persist.  The work of Roméo Dallaire is vitally important as it brings to light the plight of child soldiers.  It is necessary to recognize the damaging effects that mental health issues can play among child combatants, and to make treatment available in order to allow these children to emerge from this tragic chapter in their lives.

Alex Bartoloni
Key Correspondent
Email: [email protected]

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BBC News Report. 2002. Profile: Olara Otunnu. Accessed 16 November, 2012. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1973735.stm >

Betancourt, Theresa; Borisova, Ivelina; de la Soudiere, Marie; Williamson, John. 2010.  Sierra Leone’s Child Soldiers: War Exposures and Mental Health Problems by Gender. Journal of Adolescent Health 49 (2011) 21–28.

Moscardino, Ughetta; Scrimin, Sara; Cadei, Francesca; Altoé, Gianmarco. 2011. Mental Health among Former Child Soldiers and Never-Abducted Children in Northern Uganda. The ScientificWorld Journal Volume 2012, Article ID 367545.

Odeh, Michael; Sullivan, Conor. Children in Armed Conflict – Recent Developments in International Rehabilitation of Child Soldiers. Youth Advocate Program International Resource Paper.

UNICEF. Factsheet – Child Soldiers.

Whitman, Shelly; Zayed, Tanya; Conradi; Carl; Griffiths, Ann. 2012. Living Within Armed Groups: A Gendered Perspective. The Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. Halifax, Canada,  7-9 May 2012.



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