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Somalia’s growing army of child soldiers

Children as young as nine are being signed up and forced to fight in Somalia’s conflict in rising numbers.  Schools are being used as recruitment centres and child soldiers are often beaten or executed when captured, United Nations reports reveal. Two senior United Nations officials this week called for groups using children as soldiers in Somalia to release them immediately. "We are appalled to learn that the recruitment and use of children as soldiers by armed groups in Somalia is rising," United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), director Anthony Lake and special representative Radhika Coomaraswamy said in a joint statement. "All parties to the conflict are involved, and in some cases children as young as nine years old are being recruited.”“Children forced to put on a uniform and carry a gun suffer psychological and often physical damage, and without assistance may grow to become instigators of violence, including recruiters of child soldiers, as adults,” they added.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and Islamist rebels control large parts of its territory. The fighting in the Horn of Africa country is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with 1.4 million people forced from their homes, some 570,000 refugees and nearly a third of the population (3 million people) rely on humanitarian aid simply to survive. The country has little infrastructure and fewer than a quarter of school-age children attend primary school.The fighting has got worse recently. “The use of child soldiers is a tragedy for Somalia right now,” read the statement. “Unless urgent action is taken, it may also threaten the country’s future stability. Children and young people are the majority of the population of Somalia and they deserve a childhood free from the terrors of armed conflict."

Often child soldiers are left frightened, traumatized and desensitized to violence, said UNICEF Representative in Somalia Rozanne Chorlton. “In the southern and central part of Somalia, there are no children who have had the experience of living in peace,” said Ms Chorlton. “How Somalia will be able to restore the processes and structures and practice of dealing with issues in peaceful ways is very concerning.”

Besides the growing use of child soldiers, the situation in Somalia is desperate. Nineteen per cent of children under five are malnourished, and in some areas malnutrition levels are reaching 27 per cent, according to UN figures. 

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