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The government is failing countless children being exploited as tools of war

3 min read

Of the many horrors of conflict, the impact on children is one of the worst.

Child recruitment is one of the most haunting examples of this, as girls and boys are turned into cheap and dispensable tools of war. Despite progress being made in recent decades, the Covid-19 pandemic reversed some of these gains and child recruitment levels are once again climbing.

It has been more than 20 years since the UN Security Council formally condemned the recruitment of children into conflict. However, today, in more than 20 countries around the world including Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan, tens of thousands of children are still becoming soldiers – either through force, or because they see no other alternative.

By earning the shameful distinction of being the only G7 country to cut aid during the global pandemic, the UK government has failed these children. It’s time for that to change.

Politics is put before poverty and Britain’s world-leading development expertise is shunted to the sidelines

The conditions which fuel the risk of child recruitment, such as extreme poverty and chronic food insecurity, have worsened during the pandemic. If we are to protect the countless children vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, exposed to extreme violence through active combat and, sometimes, participation in atrocities, we must not ignore these conditions.

Girls are especially vulnerable to specific forms of violence such as sexual exploitation. The processes of demobilising recruited children is also lengthy and complicated, and predicated on the ability to offer alternative choices. Once out of the environment of an armed group, children begin a long journey of recovery with many suffering psychological and physical trauma, drug and alcohol addiction and malnutrition.

For girls who return with their own children as a result of sexual violence, reintegration is often even harder. The struggles of the psychological and economic burden of motherhood on child survivors of rape, as well as the pain of community stigma, compounds their trauma.

Since the Tory cuts to the UK aid budget last year, many projects focused on the well-being and protection of children have been weakened, or in some cases completely collapsed. These include schools, health clinics, and food distribution programmes.

Part of a World Vision UK’s Partnership Against Child Exploitation programme was working in the Central African Republic to fight child exploitation and help children reintegrate into communities for a more positive future. But the Conservatives choice to slash the aid budget meant it was shut down and those children abandoned.

To mark World Day Against Child Labour yesterday, it is critical we recognise that the UK has a key role in addressing this global issue. The FCDO recently published their long-awaited International Development Strategy, but children are noticeably absent from the document. When they are mentioned, they come under a hazily defined “women and girls” agenda. Politics is put before poverty and Britain’s world-leading development expertise is shunted to the sidelines.

We need a holistic approach to preventing child recruitment, which addresses the root causes of violence against children such as poverty and conflict. Labour will strengthen child protection systems, and support those who have been previously recruited as children to recover and reintegrate into their communities.

While the pandemic appears to be rounding a corner, the scale of its long-term consequences are still only coming into view. Though the worst of the virus is starting to look like it is behind us, we can’t take our focus off the lives it continues to shatter.


Preet Kaur Gill is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and shadow cabinet minister for international development.

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