Sign Up

Children at War: The Lost Generation

How have Africa’s socioeconomic problems affected the lives of its youth?

March 16, 2005

How have Africa's socioeconomic problems affected the lives of its youth?

The brunt of many socioeconomic problems is falling onto the youngest segments of the world’s population.

Unprecedented numbers of children around the world are undereducated, malnourished, marginalized and disaffected. Almost a quarter of all the world's youth survive on less than a dollar a day.

As many as 250 million children live on the street, 211 million children must work to feed themselves and their families, 115 million children have never been to school. A third of all children in Africa suffer from severe hunger. By 2010, this figure may rise to as many as half of all African children.

These desperate and excluded children constitute a huge pool of labor for the illegal economy, organized crime and armed conflicts.

In describing the concurrent risks, Juan Somavi, secretary general of the World Social Summit, notes, "We've replaced the threat of the nuclear bomb with the threat of a social bomb."

While this may be the ultimate nightmare scenario, it is clear that the disconnect between growing population needs and supplies sharply increases the general demands on state and society, while simultaneously decreasing their ability to meet them.

Of particular worry is the enduring nature of the AIDS epidemic in the developing world, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not coincidentally, this is where the centrum of the child soldier phenomenon lies.

The disease, currently infecting 4.8 million people a year, is altering the very demographics of the region, with terrifying consequences for both stability and security.

AIDS does not strike with equal weight across age groups. In a "unique phenomenon in biology," the disease actually reverses death rates to strike hardest at mature — but not yet elderly adults.

The consequence is that population curves shift (eliminating the typical middle-aged hump), acting almost in direct opposite to the manner of previous epidemics.

Such a shift in demographics is fairly worrisome. Recent research has found a strong correlation between violent outbreaks, ranging from wars to terrorism, and the proportion of young males to the overall population.

Once the ratio of young males grows too far out of balance, violent conflict tends to ensue.

AIDS will likely cause this in several states already close to this dangerous threshold.

This process is known as "coalition aggression." Young men, who are considerably psychologically more aggressive, naturally compete for social and material resources in all societies.

When outnumbering other generations, however, there are inevitably more losers than winners among the youth in this process.

Moreover, the typical stabilizing influences of elders are lessened by the overall mass of youth. These lost youths are more easily harnessed into more pernicious activities that can lead to conflict.

For example, demagogues, warlords, criminals and others all find it easier to recruit when a large population of angry, listless young men fills the street.

Riots and other social crises are also more likely. In a sense, it is conflict caused from the bottom up — rather than the top down.

There is also a more direct way in which the new demographics of AIDS can heighten security risks. The disease is gradually creating a new pool of orphans — a group especially susceptible to being pulled into child soldiering.

By 2010, more than 43 million children will have lost one or both of their parents to AIDS, including 33% of all children in the hardest-hit countries. The normal percentage of children who are orphans in developing countries is 2%.

Among them are 2.7 million in Nigeria, 2.5 million in Ethiopia and 1.8 million in South Africa. This cohort represents a new "lost orphan generation."

Both the stigma of the disease and the sheer number of victims will overwhelm the communities and extended families that would normally look after these orphans. Their prospects are heartrending and dangerous.

Besides being malnourished, stigmatized and vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, this mass of disconnected and disaffected children is particularly at risk of being exploited as child soldiers.

Having watched their parents die and been forced to fend for themselves, many will consider they have nothing to lose by entering into war.

About half the ongoing wars in the world are entering their second generation of prospective fighters. In such extended conflicts, children have grown up surrounded by violence and often see it as a permanent way of life.

These children are also valued as a potential source of new recruits. For example, the head of a Karen rebel training camp in Myanmar describes how he brought his own 12-year-old son into the fight.

"I took him out of school in the third grade to turn him into a military man. I thought that if he studies now, he'll just have to fight later. Better to fight now and learn later when there is time for it."

All this gives a new meaning to the moniker "the lost generation."

The overwhelming majority of child soldiers are drawn from the poorest, least educated and most marginalized sections of society.

They have been forced to grow up in what one writer aptly termed a "roving orphanage of blood and flame."

"I don't know where my father and mother are. I had nothing to eat. I joined the gunmen to get food . . . I was with the other fighters for eight months. There was nothing good about that life." — M., age 12.

Adapted from CHILDREN AT WAR by P.W. Singer. Copyright (c) 2005 by Peter Warren Singer. With permission from the publisher Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.