Getting children out of armed forces in Afghanistan

The day I left Afghanistan in November, a suicide bomber killed a man who worked at the British embassy in Kabul. I had passed by the site of the explosion just a few minutes before it happened. Afghanistan is a country with a rich history and wonderful people, but it has been embroiled in conflict for decades, affecting the lives of millions of girls and boys.

I was in Afghanistan to support the Government’s work implementing an Action Plan they signed with the United Nations on 10 January 2011. The goal of the Action Plan is to stop, prevent and address the recruitment and use of children by security forces and armed groups. It outlines the steps needed to end the recruitment and use of children into the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

Earlier this year UNICEF and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict launched the Children Not Soldiers campaign, with the goal of releasing all children recruited in government armed forces by the end of 2016*. Afghanistan is one of seven countries where this occurs: poverty, patriotism, peer or family pressures can push Afghan children to join the armed forces.

An important part of ending the recruitment and use of children in security forces is determining a child’s age. This may seem like an easy thing to do, but in a country where birth certificates are hard to come by and where it is possible to forge national identity cards, it is difficult to determine the age of a young person applying to join the police or the army.

In October of this year a UNICEF assessment found that the procedures used by Afghan recruiters to determine the age of potential recruits for the police and armed forces were not uniform across various units, and were most ineffective and even arbitrary. For example, recruiters observe the amount of hair on a young man’s leg or growth of their beard, or other physical characteristics to guess applicants’ age.

While in Kabul, I worked with UNICEF Afghanistan colleagues to facilitate a workshop on age assessment with Afghan government ministries, branches of the national security forces and the UN mission, to improve procedures and come up with new national guidelines.

During the workshop, the different branches of the national security forces explained recruitment processes, and the Ministry of Health presented the limits of medical exams for age assessment; national and international best practices, experiences and methodologies were discussed in-depth.

A new procedure to assess the age of candidates who are suspected to be children was agreed on. Professional interviews of those candidates will be completed by trained recruiters who understand specialized communication procedures and the information will be triangulated with other sources including available documentation.

The guidelines will be endorsed by respective ministries. Then they will be disseminated to all recruitment centers countrywide and training will be conducted to enable recruiters to use child-friendly techniques and follow protocol questions around the candidate’s personal history, family structure and events. If recruiters identify children they will be rejected and referred to child protection actors or sent back to their families and communities.

High ranking officials and military generals met with me before and during the workshop; they were candid, collaborative and enthusiastic about the new procedures. I was impressed by their dedication to professionalize their armed forces. The guidelines are a big step to put the country on track in making their security forces child free.

Eduardo Garcia Rolland works on the ‘Children not Soldiers’ initiative at UNICEF.

Children, Not Soldiers Campaign

Children, Not Soldiers is a campaign to end the recruitment and use of children in Government armed forces by 2016. Led by Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and UNICEF, the campaign mobilizes global support and financial resources so the seven government armed forces listed in the Secretary General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict become, and remain, child-free.

* An earlier version of the blogpost stated that the ‘Children not Soldiers’ campaign will end in March 2016. The campaign runs until the end of 2016 and will end officially on 1 January 2017.

This blog was originally published by UNICEF