Since the 1990s, increasing attention has been drawn to child soldiering in Africa. While greater awareness is important in responding to the use of children as soldiers, popular images have too often sensationalized the issue, with counter-productive consequences. Ubiquitous media images of boys with guns as the epitome of child soldiering and girl sex slaves as 'victims' of conflict obscure the fact that many other children and young people, both male and female, play a variety of different, and often simultaneous, roles in conflict.
In recognition of these multiple roles, and concerned that some of the less visible child soldiers were being ignored and hence overlooked in demobilization programs, a group of agencies working with children in conflict met in Cape Town in 1997 to establish a working definition:
"A child soldier is any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members."
By casting the net wide, this definition challenges the predominant narrow conceptualization of child soldiers and takes into account less visible roles, often played by girls and young women. In order to adequately 'see' both girls and boys in fighting forces, we need to sharpen our insight into differential patterns of recruitment, experiences in conflict and demobilization in different contexts, taking into account factors such as sex, age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
While it is often assumed that children are forcibly recruited into armed forces and groups, conscription, abduction, and gang-pressing of children are relatively rare, although highest in Africa. Despite the ambiguity of 'voluntary' recruitment in contexts of severely constrained choices, we must seek to understand the complex rationale in young people's decision to join out of...
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