Who Are the Real Child Soldiers?

A new film offers a powerful — but stereotypical — image of child soldiers. Here's what it gets wrong.

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Last week, Netflix released Beasts of No Nation, the “brutal tale” of Agu, a young African boy who joins the ranks of a rebel group after his father and brother are killed. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name, the movie has already been tipped for an Oscar by movie critics.

Beasts of No Nation is sure to raise the profile of the harrowing issue of children pressed into combat: in less than two weeks, more than three million people have already tuned in online. For that reason alone it deserves a degree of praise. The film tells a powerful story about physical and psychological harm inflicted upon Agu as he fights under a ruthless officer (known simply as the “Commandant”) in a civil war in a fictional African state.

At the same time, however, the movie reinforces a number of common and unfortunate stereotypes about child soldiers. Such misconceptions have, in the past, led to flawed policies that have failed to address the issue. Suffice it to say that as many as three in ten former child soldiers in conflicts around the world end up returning to the rebel group they once fled — and that even those who don’t rejoin face long-term unemployment and above-average rates of drug addiction and suicide.

The portrayal of Agu in the movie hits every beat of the stereotypical African child soldier trope. He wields an AK-47 with which he kills a number of enemy combatants and civilians. He participates in a magic ritual that, his commanders assure him, will make bullets pass harmlessly through his body. Under intense pressure from his rebel peers, he consumes drugs before combat.

Certainly, there are child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa. Rebel groups and state militaries alike have depended on underage combatants in deadly wars in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

But, as a result of this focus on Africa, the plight of child soldiers in the Middle East and Asia is neglected. It also reinforces the common perception of Africa as a wholly broken, war-torn continent.

In reality, fewer than half of the countries that have engaged underage combatants since 2011 are in Africa. A recent United Nations report points out that the nation now facing the biggest challenge with child soldiers is, in fact, Yemen.

As the country’s civil war continues, it is estimated that approximately one in three fighters in Yemen are children. In less than 30 days earlier this year, Houthi rebels, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a score of smaller militias recruited 140 underage boys and girls to join their ranks. Human Rights Watch has documented the Houthi rebels’ forced recruitment of children in the conflict, which now stretches back as far as 2009. The group is responsible for almost 90 percent of all recorded cases of child soldier abduction and enrollment in Yemen in 2014.

Beasts of No Nation is also somewhat off the mark regarding gender. Every single combatant depicted in the film is male. This includes Agu and all other child soldiers in the movie. There are few strong women characters: they are largely relegated to secondary roles as victims, prostitutes, and mothers, with little influence over the war itself.

In fact, analysts believe that forty percent of the child soldiers around the world are girls. Girls have played active combat roles in wars as far afield as Colombia, Liberia, and Uganda. Research on Sierra Leone’s civil war uncovered the story of one teenage girl who achieved successive promotions within the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Having finally attained the senior rank of commander — “deemed to be the pinnacle of success within the RUF” — she led an entire unit of child combatants. This girl’s experiences are not unique. There are many thousands of documented cases of girls serving as soldiers in wars across the globe.

The exclusion of girls from media coverage of child soldiers has distorted policymaking. Many well-intentioned disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs, which aim to help former child soldiers successfully transition back into civilian life, have prioritized boys over girls.

McGill University Professor Myriam Denov conducted extensive field research on this issue in Sierra Leone and discovered that “most girl [soldiers] experienced systematic exclusion from DDR.” While many boy soldiers received counseling and access to education, female child soldiers received no such support. This exclusion is driven largely by the stereotypes that Beasts of No Nation reinforces. Broadening our conception of child soldiers to incorporate girls will be key to tackling rampant levels of recidivism for children formerly associated with armed groups.

The movie also overreaches in its depiction of Agu’s role as a fighter. “I will train him to be a warrior!” roars the Commandant upon first discovering Agu roaming the forest alone. His soldiers present Agu with a machete, which he uses, under duress from the Commandant, to hack an enemy soldier to death. His superiors reward him for the deed by giving him a gun of his own.

The ubiquitous image of a child soldier clutching a weapon is misrepresentative. In reality, many children abducted by armed groups never even touch a gun. Instead they play a broad range of other roles: preparing meals for the group, cleaning around the camp, performing forced sexual favors for the other combatants, or being sent on excursions to spy on enemy forces’ movements.

Driven by the stereotypical image of child soldiers as combatants, many DDR programs have required children to turn in weapons in order to benefit from the rehabilitation services offered. Experts believe that, on average, this policy excludes more than eighty percent of the minors associated with armed groups. This helps to explain the high likelihood that these children will fail to successfully reintegrate into their communities and subsequently be forced to return to life with the rebels.

Beasts of No Nation represents a missed opportunity to challenge the stereotypes that exclude thousands of children in conflict zones from rehabilitation programs. Policymakers and filmmakers alike have a responsibility to challenge such simplifications. For as long as our views of these children remain distorted by stereotypes, they will continue to cycle in and out of war.

In the photo, armed Yemeni children sit in the back of a pick up truck with fighters loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on May 10, 2015.

Photo credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images

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