The forced use of a child in armed conflicts profoundly injures the person coerced and gravely insults the idea of the dignity of a human beingan essential value of our civilization and of our self-understanding.
UNICEF estimates that more than 300,000 boys and girls under the age of 18 have been forced in over 30 conflicts worldwide to use violence against others. In these armed conflicts, children are used as soldiers, messengers, smugglers of drugs and arms, and sex slaves. Some children are forcibly recruited; others are driven to join by poverty or debt. Some are 'recruited' with drugs, made compliant by addiction.
In the complex interaction of violence and social systems, some children join armed groups to seek revenge for violence enacted against them or their families. ISIS has been recruiting boys as young as 10 to be suicide bombers. Nigeria's Boko Haram has been abducting scores of young women and selling them as sex slaves as well as using boys as combatants.
The issue of the child soldier came to the forefront in our Western media when the Lord's Resistance Army, one of Africa's oldest armed groups, forcibly recruited more than 65,000 children between 1986-2006 ( UNICEF ) as armed combatants for their wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and adjacent countries.
Most of the child soldiers we hear about are in wars far from our borders. But street gangs in the United States can operate at times like armed groups in other parts of the world. Adult gang members often begin their lives in the gangs as children, starting as messengers, errand boys, or drug mules and then graduating to larger crimes. Some of our urban gang members in fact come from civil wars and drug wars in other countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.
In many situations, the conceptual lines distinguishing a child soldier and a child gang member are hard to draw.
In one of her first cases as an attorney, Katherine Kaufka Walts, co-author of this column, worked with 'Frederick,' a bright, teenage boy, brought to the United States from West Africa to be a drug runner for his uncles who operated a drug smuggling network between Texas and Chicago. Frederick would have preferred to be in school, but his uncles made it clear, through psychological and physical coercion and abuse, that he had no other option than to work for them. Eventually, Frederick escaped and received a T-visa as a victim of human trafficking.
Frederick is not alone. For many Chicago youth, there are little perceived or actual alternatives to survival in violent communities ruled by gangs, much like the stories of their brother and sister child combatants in other parts of the world.
Studies are emerging drawing parallels between the child soldier and urban youth in gangs, between war zones and urban zones of endemic violencesocial, emotional, and economic as well as physical.
Mental health researchers such as Patricia K. Kerig have identified parallels with the trauma effects of child soldiers and urban youth involved in criminal gangs. While trauma typically is understood as a result of victimization, children who are forced to commit acts of violence, whether they are child soldiers in Africa or child gang members in El Salvador or Mexico or Chicago, suffer post-traumatic reactions on a par with those who are victimized.
In her March 2013 essay, "Child Soldiers, Gang Members: Reconceptualizing Urban Violence in America," Valerie Strattan Guerra makes insightful parallels between the child soldiers in war zones and the urban child gang members in Chicago 'combat zones'indicating how we might apply the therapeutic insights from the studies of the child soldiers to our management of our children caught in violence.
Knowing what we know about child soldiers, gang-involved youth, and trauma, we need more study and exploration of how to better respond to Chicago's gang-involved youth. Instead of treating gang-involved youth simply as criminals, we should acknowledge the nuances of their crimes within a trauma-informed framework to address the injustices they've experienced, as well as those suffered by the community.
We hope the authorities in Chicago are prepared to join this effort to re-think police and judicial responses to the systemic violence in our city that is destroying too many of our children.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.
Katherine Kaufka Walts is the Director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children and a faculty member of the School of Law at Loyola University Chicago where she specializes in child trafficking.