One aid organisation says children as young as seven were drawn into the conflict in Mali. Some youngsters were lured from poor families by the promise of money. Others were recruited forcibly by armed groups to boost their ranks and then given tasks such as manning road blocks, cooking and running errands. Some girls were raped or forced into early marriage.
According to a Human Rights Watch researcher, many of the children were recruited from very traditional Islamic areas, where communities would have little awareness about child rights.
Speaking to the news agency IRIN, the director of Mali’s child welfare department said the country had never “experienced the phenomenon of child soldiers” before. He blamed this lack of experience for cases where troops had shown off any children they’d come across in rebel groups to the media.
According to officials, more than 20 children between the ages of 12 and 17 have been found in northern areas of the country and are now being cared for in two centres in Bamako. As well as shelter, food and clothes, here the children are being given psychosocial care and support. To add to their trauma, because many were found carrying weapons, they were initially detained in custody before being transferred to the shelters.
Reuniting children with their families
Now the challenge is to reunite former child soldiers/participants with their families. However, this process has to take into account the fragile state of many communities in the north. Mali's child welfare director told IRIN that his department needs to assess “the needs in the communities in terms of school, and water and sanitation” before children can be sent home.
There is also concern for the whereabouts of many children who are believed to have taken part in the fighting but who have not yet returned home. According to a child protection specialist with the UN’s child agency (UNICEF), “a lot of information” about children who were recruited into armed groups is still “unknown”.
Government authorities, UNICEF and other aid groups hope to learn more over the coming months and reunite missing children with their parents. However, there are still pockets of insecurity in the north, causing Malian families to flee to towns such as Mopti, where emergency relief efforts are underway. The process of tracing families and returning children could therefore take some time.
SOS Children is delivering emergency relief work to children and families affected by the conflict. Find out how we are helping...