Mindanao is the second largest island group in the Philippines. It has around 20 million inhabitants, including the Bangsamoros or ethnic Filipino Muslims who call Mindanao their home. The island is also the scene of a long-standing conflict between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who are seeking self-determination and increased autonomy for their people.

The conflict waged in the past decades resulted in grave violations against boys and girls, including the recruitment and use of children for military purposes. After decades of conflict, almost every child living in an area controlled by the MILF has a family member or close acquaintance that is part of the armed group.

While a lack of economic opportunities may be a factor motivating children to join the MILF, societal acceptance, as well as encouragement by relatives and friends have contributed to boys and girls seeking to associate themselves with the armed group.  In many cases these children live at home and attend the local school or madrassah, but can be called upon by the MILF to perform auxiliary roles when needed. Children fought in combat operations and were also associated with the armed group in support roles as messengers, cooks or cleaners.

A strong commitment for children

The MILF was first listed for the recruitment and use of children in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict in 2003. Four years later, following the adoption of Security Council resolution 1612, a country task force was set up to facilitate monitoring and reporting on all six grave violations against children, establish dialogue with parties to the conflict and develop Action Plans to end violations. These efforts led to the signing of an Action Plan between the United Nations and the MILF in 2009, aimed at ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

The historic signing of the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro in March 2014, after 17 years of negotiation with the Government of the Philippines, made the creation of a self-governing region an attainable reality and created further momentum for the implementation of the Action Plan.

The MILF appointed a new five-member panel to oversee the implementation and has since shown a strong commitment to work towards a child-free military structure, with significant progress having been achieved.

Shifting perceptions and attitudes

Creating recognition that every person under the age of 18 is a child that must be disassociated from the military structure has been an important enabling factor in the implementation of the Action Plan. This change in perception began with orientation sessions for troops in all 31 base commands. These sessions focused on the roles and responsibilities of MILF leadership and rank and file, and highlighted sanctions for non-compliance. The provisions of the Action Plan, the MILF Code of Conduct and Command Orders were also disseminated.

In Mindanao, community sessions and continuous interaction with the group’s military structure also contributed to the shift in perception. Among those who embraced the shift were the members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Women’s Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB) who are members of the MILF military.

Wilma Madato, Training Officer of the Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Group and a member of the Action Plan implementation panel reflected on her role as a woman and mother in the struggle for self-determination.

“As mothers, we need to know that it is the right of every child to have an education. Our children belong to the classrooms and not in the camps or in the battlegrounds,” she says.

Finally, in 2015, UNICEF Philippines launched a local version of the campaign ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ to reinforce the work already achieved to raise awareness about the importance of protecting children from any form of military activity and to acknowledge the MILF’s commitment to end the recruitment and use of children.

The campaign ‘Children, not Soldiers’ was originally launched to galvanize support to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children by national security forces in conflict. In countries such as the Central African Republic, Mali and the Philippines, the campaign has also been used to support efforts to end the recruitment and use of children by armed groups.

A better future for Bangsamoro children

As of June 2016, the majority of the benchmarks of the Action Plan have been reached. The MILF leadership is implementing a four-step process to identify and release all children associated with the military chain of command. The steps include the identification of all children in the military rank and file, their disassociation from the military structure and creating social awareness and understanding to prevent new recruitments.

Ensuring that children that have been disassociated from the MILF military structure today remain separated in the future is crucial to the success of the Action Plan. This is why the UN continues to support the armed group to ensure rigorous age verification mechanisms in recruitment processes, ongoing screening of troops and the application of existing accountability mechanisms in cases of non-compliance.

It is equally important to support children and youth and help them find alternatives to military life, including by providing viable educational and vocational opportunities. Concerted efforts by the Government, MILF, the United Nations and the international community is essential to strengthen already existing programmes, create new opportunities, and help Mindanao turn the page once and for all on underage recruitment.