Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection

Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection

Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection

Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection


Compelling and humane, this book reveals the lives of the 300,000 child soldiers around the world, challenging stereotypes of them as predators or a lost generation. Kidnapped or lured by the promise of food, protection, revenge, or a better life, children serve not only as combatants but as porters, spies, human land mine detectors, and sexual slaves. Nearly one-third are girls, and Michael Wessells movingly reveals the particular dangers they face from pregnancy, childbirth complications, and the rejection they and their babies encounter in their local contexts.

Based mainly on participatory research and interviews with hundreds of former child soldiers worldwide, Wessells allows these ex-soldiers to speak for themselves and reveal the enormous complexity of their experiences and situations. The author argues that despite the social, moral, and psychological wounds of war, a surprising number of former child soldiers enter civilian life, and he describes the healing, livelihood, education, reconciliation, family integration, protection, and cultural supports that make it possible. A passionate call for action, Child Soldiers pushes readers to go beyond the horror stories to develop local and global strategies to stop this theft of childhood.


Civility has always been one of the first casualties of war. Today, a barbarous form of incivility is the widespread exploitation of children as soldiers. Worldwide, large numbers of girls and boys, some 7 years of age or younger, are soldiers in government forces, armed opposition groups, militias, and paramilitary groups. At an age better suited for education, many children carry guns and fight, while others serve as porters, security guards, laborers, decoys, medics, cooks, sex slaves, and spies.

It is time for the world to confront this problem, which has inflicted untold misery on many thousands of children, trampled children’s rights, and made a mockery of peace. Addressing this problem requires a dual emphasis on helping child soldiers transition into civilian life and preventing child recruitment. To accomplish either task, however, we must first understand why children become soldiers and how their war experiences affect them.

Recent advances in the study of child soldiers provide a much more grounded, contextualized understanding of child soldiers than had been available previously. Earlier ideas of a universal child soldier have given way to a more nuanced view of the enormous diversity and fluidity within the category “child soldiers.” Western concepts of childhood have been contested, yielding a richer understanding of how culture and social relations shape children's roles and the various definitions of childhood. Previous tendencies to infantilize children and to regard them as passive are giving way to a view of children as actors who have a strong sense of agency, participate in the construction of political discourses and social identities, and in some cases lead political action. Also, the distorting lenses of gender and culture biases are slowly being corrected. Not long ago the term child soldiers meant “boy soldiers,” but recent research has brought to light the situation of girls and challenged us to construct gender-appropriate reintegration programs. Although . . .

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