Sierra Leone is launching a five-year program to combat the recruitment of child soldiers and run child soldier prevention programs in local schools.
The nationwide drive, the first of its kind in West Africa, will make child-rights training mandatory for the local police and armed forces and outline standards on how troops must engage with children in combat.
Sierra Leonean troops are confronting child soldiers on the front lines when they join peacekeeping missions in countries such as Somalia and Mali, where about 6,500 Sierra Leonean troops were deployed in January.
A decade after the end of a civil war in which an estimated 10,000 child soldiers were recruited, Sierra Leone has a generation of young people who have gone to war and killed. To avoid another generation growing up amid such violence, the program aims to couple child-protection training for the police and army with an education program in 45 schools across five districts.
The Child Soldier Initiative (CSI), a nonprofit group founded by Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the former U. commander who led the ill-fated peacekeeping mission in Rwanda from 1993 to 1994, has designed the training manual and program for the army, police force, and prison officials. CSI officials said they do not yet know how many security officials will be trained but the army has 13,000 soldiers.
In the second phase of the scheme, now being developed, CSI hopes to train and employ former child soldiers to run the school program, which will teach children about their legal rights and explain what child soldiery is and what tactics are used to recruit children.
Sierra Leone is the first country in West Africa to adopt an official child soldier policy, said Ismail Tarawalie, director of internal security at the Office of National Security. Other war- affected countries like Sudan, Mali, and Ivory Coast have received training from charities like CSI and UNICEF but do not have mandatory child-protection training policies.
“It is an important project because it will enhance the military’s capacity to meet international standards and ensure adequate training for military personnel,” Tarawalie said.
The charity has raised $150,000 for the first 18 months of the program, but executive director Shelley Whitman estimates it will cost an additional $350,000 to run the project for five years as planned. CSI has done child-protection training for security personnel in 46 countries, but Whitman said this is the first time its goal is to train a whole nation.
Child soldiers are a problem confronting many African countries. Psychological trauma, maimed children with amputated limbs, and stolen childhoods are its immediate effects. But for post-conflict countries like Sierra Leone, its impact lingers a decade later. Many former soldiers who did not successfully reintegrate and finish school are now homeless and jobless, a generation of unskilled young adults living on the streets.
Saudamini Siegrist, a child-protection specialist with UNICEF, said CSI’s long-term commitment to a large-scale security sector training program is significant because it fills a gap in post-conflict countries’ rehabilitation schemes.
“Recovery from the consequences of war takes time – even a lifetime,” said Siegrist.
• Alyson Rowe is a fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.