Children in the frontline of Philippine conflicts

High number of children with armed groups reflect a lack of govt socio-economic action in depressed areas
Children in the frontline of Philippine conflicts

Armed conflicts in rural communities in countries like the Philippines make children vulnerable to recruitment as combatants. (Photo by Mark Navales)

The Philippines has one of the most long-standing conflicts in Southeast Asia. The complex narratives of various insurgent groups fighting the government include the recruitment of children as combatants.

The United Nations says the recruitment and use of children during conflict is a severe violation of human rights and is condemned by the U.N. Security Council. But in most parts of the world, children directly take part in combat.

A child soldier is defined as having an association with an armed force or armed group, recruited or used by the organization in any capacity, including but not limited to being fighters, cooks, porters, spies, or for sexual purposes.

In Marawi in the southern Philippines, an armed group with links with the so-called Islamic State has reportedly recruited children to fight government forces. The Maute group is using the message of martyrdom for children to employ in training and in fighting.


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But why the children? 

A study by the Philippine Human Rights Center found that 75.3 percent of children in the country’s conflicts serve as combatants while 24.7 percent do auxiliary and support functions and political organizing. 

The major reasons for children joining an armed group are an amalgamation of factors — poverty; perceived government neglect; membership and affiliation of family members in the armed group; victims of abuse, exploitation and injustice; subscription to a particular political ideology; and secessionist promotion.

Children who serve as soldiers are deprived of their right to play and reject the idea of playing as an integral part of their growth and development due to sensitive vigilance and security considerations in camps.

The Philippines, as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, has committed to eradicate the recruitment and engagement of children as combatants in conflict.

Even though it is also prohibited under two Philippine laws pertaining to child labor and abuse, the country has shown minimal development in resolving the problem.

The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reported that up to one-fifth of the Philippines' communist insurgents — an estimated 7,500 armed force — are under 18 years old, while children made up 13 percent of the 10,000 member Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The problem of child recruitment has been long existent in the Philippines. The issue does not only require government interventions but also calls for immediate and strong constructive engagement from various civil society organizations.

The reasons why children join armed groups reflect the lack of socio-economic interventions in depressed areas, causing children to further the cause of insurgents.

The use of children to execute violence has been a way of convincing minorities to hold arms and carry out revolutionary aggression against government forces to legitimize causes using the narrative of poverty and social injustice. 

To stop the recruitment of children, "counter-radicalization" programs should be recognized and institutionalized. 

Singapore, for instance, has one of the most effective counter-radicalization measures that adopt social resilience as strategy for counter-terrorism. Inter-Racial Confidence Circles and Harmony Circles for schools, work places, and other organizations were introduced in 2001 after the Jemaah Islamiyah network was exposed.

It is important that the Philippines and its civil society recognize immediate responses to minimize potential expansion of insurgent and extremist groups the are using children as replacements in furthering the cause of terrorism.

The use of children in the frontline of combat carries two defining messages for Philippine society — upfront neglect of state responsibility to resolve and address the main reasons for children joining armed groups; and the production of more conflict in the country. 

Children need no arms, and the only way to help them get rid of any potential involvement in terrorism is to provide needed social services, such as education and opportunities for holistic development. 

Reuben James Barrete is a development worker in Manila whose focus is human rights, poverty solutions, and social protection. He is taking up a Masters degree in International Studies at the University of the Philippines.

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